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Home > Publications > Quill > Freelancers: Learn to overcome record request hurdles



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Thursday, November 2, 2017
Freelancers: Learn to overcome record request hurdles

Freelance Toolbox

By Hilary Niles

“And who are you reporting for?”

This the most dreaded question I hear as a freelancer, especially when I’m calling a public office to request records. I don’t fault anyone for asking it — it’s a natural question, and I’m sure I would ask it too, if the tables were turned.

But as freelancers, we usually need to conduct a certain amount a research before pitching a story. In these early stages, there isn’t always a good answer to that question beyond, “Oh, I’m not reporting for anyone yet. I’m just curious.” Which, although legally and technically justifiable, does not realistically inspire a sense of urgency on the part of many bureaucrats and their screeners.

Nonetheless, early research is critical to our work and business models, particularly for any degree of investigative reporting. So, what’s a freelancer to do?

Following are some tips* for how to handle the dreaded question:

1. Remember, public records are just that: public. They’re not “Press Records,” and they’re especially not “Records Reserved for Disclosure Only to Staff Members of Recognized News Outlets.” Disclosure depends on the nature of the records — not your identity, nor your intended publication. So, start any public records request by connecting with the firm ground on which you stand in your inquiry. If you meet resistance, you can remind your contacts of these principles. We all have different communication styles, but I recommend doing so with polite and casual professionalism, not antagonism or defensiveness.

2. Train your contacts to respond to you because you’re you, not because you may be reporting for any particular news outlet. For example, even when you have an assignment in hand, request records simply as yourself, without naming whom you’re reporting for. This will help acclimate your contacts to dealing with you on your own terms. The paradigm shift will come in handy during later early-stage requests, when your contacts don’t have to know that you don’t have an assignment.

3. Become your own best advocate. This goes for any reporter, but it’s really up to us as freelancers to know our stuff. Bookmark federal and your state’s public records statutes and study the parameters. Demand that any and every redaction or withheld record be justified with a citation to the exemption; then check the citation to be sure it means what the bureaucrats say. And speak up when you disagree with their interpretation of the law. Base your understanding on common sense; you don’t need a law degree at this stage of the game. To the extent possible, push back on technicalities even before formally appealing a denial or redaction.

The next stage of negotiation often revolves around cost. This, again, is a challenge that staff reporters face, too. But as freelancers, we often feel particularly vulnerable to being priced out of the market for access to information. When that happens, consider these techniques:

1. Request fee waivers based on your credentials, not your clients. (See also No. 2, above.) The federal Freedom of Information Act and some state laws offer potential fee waivers for researchers, including journalists, who pledge to use requested information for non-commercial purposes in the public interest. The federal FOIA even suggests that an assignment qualifies a freelancer as a member of the news media eligible for fee waivers. But it doesn’t go so far as to require an assignment. “(T)he Government may also consider the past publication record of the requester in making such a determination,” the law says. Perhaps sometimes you’ll have to go out of your way to justify your research, but don’t assume that you need proof of an assignment up front in order to avoid hefty costs.

2. Call their bluff. I’ve been told in the past that a request could cost thousands of dollars to produce. Maybe this office would have said the same to anyone from an official newsroom, or maybe they thought they could scare me away. Regardless, after checking my budget (and risk tolerance), I told the office to work till they hit $750 and get back to me. They never hit $750. They never even sent me a bill. They just sent me the records.

3. Get newsroom buy-in. This is more feasible in the context of established relationships with editors, but if you’ve got that in your favor, use it to your advantage. Make the case to your editor for why these records are worth investigating, and see if they’ll commit a certain level of funding. Keep in mind, this is even before an actual pitch — because you don’t have the records yet, so you don’t know what the story is. To make this work, you’d have to have enough of a lead to interest the newsroom. But be careful to not over-promise. Instead, establish the clear expectation that the request could turn up nothing, but simply finding out is worth the investment.

4. Apply for grants. A handful of organizations support investigative freelance reporting with grants that cover the cost of public records requests. Check back on the SPJ Freelance Community’s blog at blogs.spjnetwork.org/freelance for such resources, as well as other insights from “Yes, You Can: Investigative Reporting as a Freelancer,” a session at this September’s Excellence in Journalism conference.

* Results may vary, depending on the size of the bureaucracy from which you’re requesting, the frequency of your contact with them, the significance of your online presence to demonstrate that you should be taken seriously and the attitude of the person responding. When you do encounter obstacles or pushback, remember that staff reporters experience this, too. Our techniques for overcoming them as freelancers may vary slightly, but in the end, journalism is a lot about perseverance. Keep up the good work.

Hilary Niles is a freelance data journalism consultant, multimedia investigative storyteller and award-winning researcher based in Vermont. She’s secretary of the SPJ Freelance Community, a member of the FOI Committee and an alum of the Missouri School of Journalism graduate program. Her reporting has been featured in The Boston Globe and on Vermont Public Radio; on NPR’s "Only a Game," "Here and Now" and "All Things Considered"; and on the BBC World Service.

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