Articles about "Investigative journalism"


What the ESPN/Frontline breakup teaches us about investigative reporting

As we put the pieces together in this week’s ESPN/Frontline breakup, we’ve learned something about investigative journalism: it’s incredibly difficult for a news organization to hold its own partners accountable.

That may have been obvious. But for the 18 months I was the lead writer on the Poynter Review Project, which served as ESPN’s ombudsman, the brass in Bristol, Conn., insisted ESPN could do both.

We don’t surprise our partners, ESPN executives told me. But they always added that not surprising partners wasn’t the same as not investigating them, as ESPN and Frontline were doing with the NFL. And indeed, ESPN has amassed a remarkable body of work on the subject at hand, the long-term effects of concussions on professional football players.

But investigative reporting is more than just acknowledging harsh realities. Investigative journalists take a stand.

ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, along with journalists at PBS’  Frontline, seem to clearly have formed the opinion that the NFL was negligent in its response to the concussion problem. The two-part documentary and the book that emerged from their reporting is titled “League of Denial.”

The tone of a trailer for the documentary is clearly accusatory, and it was this tone that reportedly gave ESPN CEO John Skipper pause. He told his current ombudsman Robert Lipsyte that the trailer seemed “sensational.”

That Skipper and other executives at ESPN didn’t recognize the hard-charging approach Frontline would take suggests to me that they don’t really recognize the true nature of investigative journalism. After all, ESPN storytelling is no stranger to production techniques meant to elicit an emotional response from viewers, including the use of music and dramatic recreations. ESPN is a master of these techniques, in fact.

When your reporters conclude that a powerful organization like the NFL acted negligently, caused substantial and irreversible harm, and should have known it was doing so, those reporters and the producers they work with are going to employ those same dramatic techniques to convince their audience that their conclusions are warranted. That’s what separates true investigative journalism from merely hard-hitting truth telling: All good reporters unearth facts, but investigative reporters usually arrive at conclusions.

James S. Ettema and Theodore Glasser explored the differences between straight reporting and investigative work in their 1985 essay “On the Epistemology of Investigative Journalism,” which appears in this book. “Investigative reporting is, in short, unabashedly moralistic,” they write.

Ettema and Glasser go on to describe how investigative reporters sort through factual claims, assign credibility to those claims, and then use those facts to justify a larger narrative of the truth.

In journalism today, we have to come to describe all reporting that digs up facts that might be hidden as investigative reporting. But what Ettema and Glasser are describing is a yet higher level of reporting — it is a form of advocacy. They write that while daily and beat reporters strive for a certain distance or objectivity, investigative reporters do the exact opposite. They form opinions based on their reporting.

You can see the opinions forming based the progression of evidence in stories that Frontline and ESPN jointly published before their breakup.

  • The first stories document new discoveries of brain injuries in dead and living football players.
  • This story documents how the NFL prevented the nation’s leading researchers on concussions from studying Junior Seau’s brain after the legendary player committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest specifically so researchers could look at his brain.

Recently stories have become more accusatory:

By looking at the stories in order of publication, we can witness the journalists circling in on the type of evidence that Ettema and Glasser are describing. Certainly there are competing opinions about the seriousness of the concussion problem. But the journalists working on League of Denial have examined the research and the opinions, and have decided that the people who are have been arguing in favor of alarm are correct. And the title of the book and the documentary indicate they think the NFL had reason to pay attention to that information and didn’t.

It’s one thing for journalists to ask tough questions. It’s completely different for journalists to provide the answers to those tough questions. And that’s where ESPN couldn’t seem to go with the NFL.


“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. Read more

Air America Documents

Declassification Engine provides solution to processing declassified documents

At a time when “big data” is in vogue and computational journalism is taking off, reporters need efficient ways to process millions of documents. The Declassification Engine is one way to solve this problem. The project uses the latest methods in computer science to demystify declassified texts and increase transparency in government documents.

The project’s mission is to “create a critical mass of declassified documents by aggregating all the archives that are now just scattered online,” said Matthew Connelly, professor of international and global history at Columbia University and one of the professors directing the project, in a phone interview with Poynter.

Matthew Connelly
Matthew Connelly

The team working on the project, which began in September 2012, is made up of historians, statisticians, legal scholars, journalists and computer scientists.

All the data fed into The Declassification Engine comes from declassified documents, mostly from the National Archives, including more than a million telegrams from the State Department Central Foreign Policy Files. The Declassification Engine database also includes documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Declassification Engine’s website offers some interesting stats on declassification and says “95 percent of historical documents end up being destroyed in secrecy.”

The New York Times reported the federal government spent more than $11 billion in 2011 to protect classified information, excluding costs from the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

The National Declassification Center was set up in 2010 to process more than 400 million pages of backlogged documents at the National Archives. Three years later, the backlog has decreased to 357 million pages. Its goal was to process all pages by December 2013, according to a presidential memorandum.

How The Declassification Engine works

With The Declassification Engine database, the team plans to develop Web applications to make sense of the documents. For example, the Redaction Archive finds “another version of the same document where the redaction is removed,” Connelly said.

Government agencies often release the same documents at different times, redacting different sections. With a side-by-side analysis, the engine could “compare different documents on the same subject to guess what might be in the redacted text even if the redaction isn’t declassified,” Connelly said.

A side-by-side view of a document from the Truman Administration dated April 12, 1950 shows how The Declassification Engine compares text from two documents to uncover redactions. (Photo: The Declassification Engine)

Natural Language Processing (computational methods to extract information from written languages) and machine learning (techniques to recognize patterns) power The Declassification Engine and enable it to analyze text and images, filling in missing information.

The team is also building:

  • The Sphere of Influence — a visualization of hundreds of thousands of cables from the State Department dating back to the 1970s
  • The (De)Classifier – a tool displaying cable activity over time comparing declassified documents to documents still withheld
  • The (De)Sanitizer – a tool that uses previously redacted text to suggest which topics are the most sensitive.

Connelly and David Madigan, professor and chair of statistics, led The Declassification Engine team to win one of eight 2013 Magic Grants from the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Former Cosmopolitan editor and author Helen Gurley Brown gave a $30 million gift to start the Brown Institute to further innovation in journalism. Half of the funding from the Magic Grant comes from the Brown Institute and the other half comes from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia.

“The Declassification Engine was an obvious choice — an impressive, interdisciplinary team and a challenging journalistic ambition to reveal patterns in official secrecy,” Mark Hansen, East Coast director of the Brown Institute and professor of journalism at Columbia University, said via email. He convened the review team at Columbia that picked four East Coast grant recipients.

“From attributing authorship to anonymous documents, to making predictions about the contents of redacted text, to modeling the geographic and temporal patterns in diplomatic communications,” the engine addresses “a very real need to ‘read’ large collections of texts,” Hansen wrote.

Applications for journalists

Although the project is in its early stages, beginning in Sept Connelly said he could imagine several uses for journalists. People can “go trolling through history to find things that were once secret and are now declassified,” he said.

With enough documents, The Declassification Engine can guess the probability that the redaction is the name of a place or a person. “Developing the means to identify topics, like subjects, that are particularly sensitive” could “give people ideas for stories,” Connelly said.

In his early work, Connelly discovered abnormal bursts of diplomatic correspondence surrounding the word “Boulder” that kept reappearing.

After some investigating, Connelly uncovered a covert program that few scholars knew about. He told Poynter:

There’s something called Operation Boulder which was a program in the 1970s to identify people with Arabic last names who were applying for visas to visit the U.S. and subject them to FBI investigation. Thirty years later when officials were trying to decide whether to declassify these documents, almost every document related to this program was withheld completely. For me, that’s proof of concept.

Although most of the references to Operation Boulder remain classified, Connelly could tell the program was very large by counting the number of cables being sent around the world about it.

After Andrea A. Dixon, communications doctoral student at Columbia University, and Vani Natarajan, librarian at Barnard College, learned about Operation Boulder from Connelly, they embarked on a project to collect and analyze diplomatic cables, hoping to uncover stories from people who’d been targeted. They produced a digital exhibit that chronicled discrimination against Arab Americans and Middle Eastern people living in or traveling to the U.S. during the Nixon Administration.

The Declassification Engine allowed them to “query the database of cables for the specific documents,” Dixon wrote in an email to Poynter.

She and Natarajan reconstructed texts based on similar documents and patterns emerging from statistical analyses and historical records. Although the documents lacked a great deal of context and attribution, eventually the two pieced together a narrative with the help of stories from people who were discriminated against and harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Declassification Engine serves as “a digital tool that enables analysis of a deluge of documents,” Dixon wrote. She hopes it will offer the chance to “enrich and revise” history during the periods covered by the database.

Connelly said the digital exhibit is one of many applications for The Declassification Engine. His lofty goal is ultimately to create “a large-scale archive aggregator” that operates virtually so anyone can “find declassified documents on any subjects.”

He said he hopes the team can build a model like DocumentCloud for declassified texts. “You could also contribute your own documents and apply these tools to discover things in the documents that you wouldn’t see otherwise,” he said. Read more

Magnifying glass on laptop

Why it’s time to stop romanticizing & begin measuring investigative journalism’s impact

Charles Lewis, one of the luminaries of nonprofit investigative journalism, sees a culture clash brewing as the sector continues to grow, covering what shrinking legacy media may miss and, more recently, innovating with powerful reporting techniques.

On the one hand, foundations big and small want metrics that demonstrate results analogous to assessments they apply to arts projects, social service initiatives and advocacy work.

On the other hand, Lewis wrote in a white paper last month, “veteran editors and reporters, particularly of the investigative ilk, have an inherent, almost visceral dislike of audience measurement and engagement strategies.” Instead they see themselves “as intrepid hunter-gatherers of information” who overcome a host of obstacles to produce important, even heroic, journalism.

The conflict might be academic were it not for the current state of play in nonprofit funding. Established nonprofit news sites need second and third rounds of support from foundations, and startups find foundations “feeling a bit overwhelmed and besieged by proliferating prospective grantees,” Lewis wrote.

In an e-mail interview, Lewis added, “Subjectivity is a serious occupational hazard for any grantor attempting to measure impact…Some foundations seem to be somewhat obsessed with these questions and issues, and others, not so much (especially smaller foundations with very few staff)”  But he expects the level of scrutiny to keep rising.

The white paper, which Lewis co-wrote with Hilary Niles, assesses the problems of measuring impact journalism and proposes the starting outlines of best practices. Written for the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and underwritten by the McCormick Foundation, the paper is a lengthy but worthwhile read.  Caroline O’Donovan did an excellent job summarizing it in this Nieman Lab piece.

I’m not going to try to cover the entire scope, but here are a few themes:

Difficulties: If impact and outcomes are the true markers of an effective investigation, quantitative indicators of quality are likely to miss the mark. “Targeted reach” to decision makers may be more important than broad readership numbers. Sometimes remedial action on the problem spotlighted takes years rather than months. The investigative reporting process is more time-consuming and open-ended than advocacy work, which often assumes a desired outcome and marshals evidence to make the case.

Proxies: Audience is at least a starting point, with the qualifier that fluff may outdraw substance. Lewis and Niles recommend engagement as a more sophisticated measure of reach. Mentions, links and conversations are particularly susceptible to measurement in the digital space — and can indicate that the work in question didn’t fall with a thud in an empty forest.

Models: The authors point to several pilot projects with titles like “The Center for What Works” and “Spreading the Zing” that tackle the challenge of measuring social outcomes. Perhaps, Lewis and Niles argue, some of the framework and classification of desirable outcomes can be adapted by individual projects trying to make their case rather than reinvented from scratch.

Best practices: Lewis and Niles suggest that the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is well-along in documenting the “ripple effect” of its best work. As explained by the center’s Lauren Hasler in a 10-minute video, this consists of investing time and a little money into capturing data on the spread of a story and creating a narrative with evidence of what the investigation accomplished.

The authors give passing reference to what I think is a potential ace in the hole for the nonprofits: crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding. Though they yield input rather than outcome measures, both are direct evidence of an engaged audience, willing to contribute money for investigative work or do some of it for free. Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding fit the digital era and the non-commercial idealism of nonprofit news organizations.

Also, while Lewis and Niles are focused on the nonprofit sector, I am curious whether the assessment challenge should be applied to investigative efforts at newspapers and other legacy media as well.

Some top metro papers like those in Seattle, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay determined several years ago that even as newsroom cuts become a necessity, investigative capacity should be maintained or even expanded. When Gannett was doing research as it introduced paywalls at its 80 community papers last year, it found that investigations were the top of list of “passion topics” readers were willing to pay for.

Impact gets identified and celebrated in the Pulitzers and other contests, but I am not so sure there is a reliable way to assess the volume and quality of the investigative work, if any, that your hometown paper still provides.

Not every published investigation is a gem. We have all been asked to read lengthy pieces that reflect efforts but did not come up with all that much. Also, there is a genre that rides along with law enforcement or government auditing work, creating an impression of impact but a bogus one. And my antennae are up for financial exposes that sometimes ignore basics of risk and fiduciary obligation.

Having done some, directed some and read several Russian novels worth of investigative projects, I think there is a common, sweet-spot design to the best of them. You need to identify and document a problem of some consequence (bigger than the typical TV I-team effort to help a guy get some shoddy construction fixed).

The problem should do more than leave the reader shaking his head and saying that’s unfortunate; it should be actionable. Good investigations mobilize a level of citizen awareness and often indignation. Then something happens as a result. That something can be governmental or non-governmental or both.

For instance, the recent Tampa Bay Times/Center for Investigative Reporting project identifying America’s Worst Charities is likely to result in tougher regulations in a number of states. But it should also motivate prospective donors to do a little due diligence on where the money goes before responding to a heart-tugging appeal.

Lewis said in the e-mail interview that newspapers are 50 years into evaluating the impact of investigative reporting, particularly when it changes “public laws or policies.” His framework might be less interesting to them except for “the intriguing issue” of collaborations between profits and non-profits like his joint creation of an investigative unit for the Washington Post with a Ford Foundation grant.  If those collaborative efforts grow, the for-profits will be pulled into the assessment discussion, he said.

The big impact of spectacular projects like the Boston Globe’s investigation into pedophile priests or The Washington Post’s investigation into shameful conditions at Walter Reed Hospital are self-evident. But a more modest everyday level of holding governments and other powerful institutions accountable is equally essential.

Lewis is a serial entrepreneur in launching investigative units and support organizations and some years ago won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his work. I think he is onto something again. Fleshing out the embryonic conversation about what works and why it matters is going to be essential to keep the resources to support investigative reporting flowing. Read more

Community support officer

Small paper’s ongoing investigation into local police leads to suspensions, resignations

The Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger has delivered almost daily installments this summer of a story of law enforcement dysfunction that seems more like a script for Reno 911 than a scandal plaguing a modern-day police department.

Five officers have resigned or been fired, others have been reassigned or suspended pending further investigation, and up to 20 people, current officers, former officers and city employees have been implicated. Five prominent citizens resigned from an advisory council before the first meeting.

City commissioners are struggling to isolate themselves from political fallout. And investigators have exposed a culture of sexual harassment and permissiveness, which includes documentation of police officers and staff members having sex in city offices, police cars, city parks and abandoned property.

About 200 people packed a town hall meeting this week, where most participants voiced support for the embattled police chief. A small number criticized the paper for being sensational, but at least one citizen defended The Ledger. Comments on the Ledger’s stories and letters to the editor have been more critical of the police department.

“Without [the paper] you wouldn’t know you’re spending $225,000 to keep a secret from yourself,” Kevin Kayden pointed out to the paper’s critics, referencing the legal fees the police department is spending to keep a grand jury presentment on the department’s public records practices sealed.

The Ledger, known in central Florida as “the newspaper with a heart” for its annual Winter charity campaign, was among several Florida papers sold last year by the New York Times Regional Media Group to the Halifax Media Group. Layoffs at the company and controversy over a non-compete clause (which was later dropped for existing employees) left many wondering how the changes would impact the newspapers’ capacity for significant journalism.

While there hasn’t been a comprehensive analysis of the group’s reporting as a whole, the stories coming out of Lakeland suggest that for the time being, the paper is serious about its role as a watchdog.

The Ledger currently has the equivalent of 54 full-time employees in the newsroom, 59 if you add the staff from the News Chief newspaper in nearby Winter Haven, Editor Lenore Devore told me in a phone conversation. That’s down from a high of 99 in 1999, but exactly the same as when the paper was sold to Halifax in early 2012.

It’s a small enough newsroom that, as editor, Devore is involved in the day-to-day operation. This particular string of investigations began as the police department became increasingly obstructionist about releasing public records and other information. Ultimately, the paper would string together a series of stories that revealed a host of bigger issues throughout the department, including a culture of incompetence and corruption.

In January 2012, Devore was just hoping to make it easier for her reporters to find out the day-to-day happenings at the police department, things like who got arrested and what crimes were happening. So she arranged a meeting with Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack to address increasing tension between her reporters and the department. Devore was hoping to find ways that would allow the paper gather information the public had a right to know, without having the process become onerous.

Devore said she left the meeting frustrated and with little hope that the chief was interested in instituting reforms that would serve the public’s right to access information from the department.

After that, there were more and more confrontations over records requests. Meanwhile, Devore was devoting resources to the small town of Mulberry, where city employees were routinely eating meals on taxpayers’ dime and overtime pay was out of control. Eventually, the city manager and a department head were arrested for criminal fraud and then fired.

But all that escalating tension between the paper and a variety of public officials had an upside, Devore said. Sources within many government agencies, motivated by their disappointment and dismay, began tipping off reporters, who were diligently trying to figure out what the police department was hiding.

Pretty soon, the paper was reporting on a grand jury investigation into public records violations and then a state investigation into criminal behavior in the department.

There was eventually a stack of stories about the police department’s discipline problems and ineptitude, including an off-duty cop’s road rage; deceptive practices during investigations and court proceedings; and a trend of questionable search techniques, including one where an officer forced a woman lift and shake her bra. And now there is a second criminal investigation.

“Probably the best thing that happened to us through this is we developed really good sources,” Devore said.

In the year before the sale, Devore reorganized her newsroom to create a two-person investigative team. Four full-time reporters have been working on the investigation into local police: , Matthew Pleasant, John Chambliss and. Pleasant and Chambliss will return to their regular assignments once the investigative team can spare them. The investigation has put a strain on the newsroom, Devore said, but has also energized it.

On May 6, the paper instituted a paywall, which has already exceeded the company’s goals. As far as resources go, Devore said it feels like she is standing on solid ground.

“Across the group, we’ve all been allowed to fill open positions, [since the sale]” she said. “We’re not cutting and we’re not asked to freeze.”

Investigative reporting in the United States has taken a big hit, according Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 report. And local investigations are perhaps the most vulnerable type of reporting at risk in the new journalism ecosystem. As the number of professional journalists shrinks, and as a burgeoning number of news organizations compete for the same breaking national and political stories, it’s hard to interest advertisers in stories that impact one small region of one state.

Yet individual citizens are probably more affected by their local police department and city governments than they are by national politics and federal policies. In Lakeland, there is only The Ledger; neither of the Tampa Bay newspapers or the Orlando Sentinel have bureaus there. Bay News 9, a local 24-hour cable station in Tampa Bay, partners with the Ledger to share content and staffs a small bureau in the town of about 100,000.

In addition to a reporting staff, it takes money to mount an investigation like this. “I don’t even know how much we’ve paid in attorney’s fees,” Devore said. “No one from corporate has told us to stop [asking for legal help.]”

For now there is a list, on any given day, of 20 to 25 stories that need to be pursued. Devore and investigative editor Lyle McBride (no relation to me) take turns helping reporters prioritize, chase leads and focus on the stories of the day, as well as longer enterprise stories.

While the Lakeland Police Department is consuming a big chunk of The Ledger’s reporting resources, Devore said the corruption in Mulberry was a reminder that if her paper isn’t watching the many other municipalities in Polk County, citizens are the ones who suffer.

“No one was watching them,” Devore said of that investigation into a city with one of the highest tax rates in all of Polk County. “For years this is going on and it took us months to get all the records and go through all the records. There’s just no one watching.”

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” will be available Aug. 1. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. On August 15, McBride will host a News University Webinar about the book.

Clarification: This story originally said Matthew Pleasant and John Chambliss were on the Ledger’s investigative team. They’re GA reporters who have been assigned to the paper’s investigation into local police. Read more


How to overcome your fear of FOIAs

For many journalists, FOIA is a scary four-letter acronym, sometimes stifling investigations before they even begin. This guide aims to demystify Freedom of Information Act processes, giving you the tools and confidence to ask for the information you need to write your next investigative story.

Why FOIA requests are so helpful

FOIA is both a federal and state-based law granting individuals and organizations the right to access most governmental agency records. As such, it’s a critical tool that helps journalists in their reporting and writing. Public-records requests are essential to supporting the journalistic values of holding the government accountable and ensuring openness.

Via FOIA, the government provides the information you need; however, the research and analysis associated with the information obtained is left up to you.

What information is available via FOIA

FOIA promises public access to government public meetings and records, which generally includes all documents, files and records made or received in connection with the transaction of official business.

How to file a FOIA request

Some information is available on government agency websites without the need for a request. Before you file a request, it’s a good idea to check online.

1. Identify the source of the information

You need to first identify the office or agency that holds the information you seek. If you aren’t sure which office has that information, do some preliminary research or contact an agency’s public liaison (see the government’s “Where to Make a FOIA Request” guide) to see if they can help.

2. Write a letter describing the information you would like the government to provide you.

In a FOIA request, which is usually written, you will need to describe — with as much detail as possible — the government records you want and the format in which you want to receive the information. You don’t need to reveal why you need the records.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers a FOIA Letter Generator that guides you through crafting a request to both federal and state governments. While each state is different, you may need to supplement your basic letters with additional information if you are contacting local officials. The RCFP’s Open Government guide also provides detailed information for connecting with a variety of agencies.

Include your contact information and specify whether you prefer the agency to mail you the records or transfer them by email. In some cases you’ll need to go to the physical location of the office to review and copy the records.

4. Arrange to pay any necessary fees.

Most agencies require the requester to pay a nominal fee to cover administrative costs. Typically, there’s no charge for small amounts of search time or for only a few copies, but again, this is different depending which organization you’re requesting records from.

When writing your letter, you can specifically state the amount of fees you’re willing to pay. You may also get the fees waived if you can show your request is in the public interest, rather than primarily to serve a commercial or personal interest.

4. File your request.

After you’ve filed your request and paid any fees, expect to hear from the agency within 20 business days. In its response, the agency will notify you that your request was fully granted, partially granted, or denied. A fully granted response will include all requested documents — success! The agency may partially grant your response, providing some of the information you requested and indicating if any information has been withheld or redacted because of exemptions or exclusions. If the agency denies your request, it must explain why.

Additional tips

The Florida First Amendment Foundation, located in a state known for Sunshine Laws that allow a great deal of public access to most government records, shares Ten Practical Tips for requesting public records, including making practice requests, agreeing in advance to pay any nominal fees required, and asking for written explanations of any denials. The Berkman Center’s Digital Media Law Project also offers practical tips for getting government records.

Submitting a FOIA request is deceptively simple. It’s what you do once you have the information that’s the more important part.

Challenge: What information isn’t available through a FOIA request?

Generally, records are exempt from public-records requests if they contain personal information such as Social Security numbers, information about family members of specified officials, and information concerning ongoing legal proceedings.

A record is public unless it falls into one of the nine exemptions protected from public disclosure or one of the three special law-enforcement record exclusions.

The nine exemptions include information that:

1. Is properly classified under an executive order to protect national security.

2. Is related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.

3. Is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law (see the Department of Justice FOIA Resources page)

4. Concerns business trade secrets or other confidential commercial or financial information.

5. Concerns communications within or between agencies that are protected by legal privileges, such as attorney-client privileges, protected internal processes related to the executive branch, or presidential communications.

6. If disclosed, would invade another individual’s personal privacy.

7. Is compiled for law-enforcement purposes and could possibly cause specific harms, such as interfering with enforcement proceedings, depriving someone of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication, constituting an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, disclosing the identity of a confidential source, revealing techniques and procedures for law-enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or endangering the life or physical safety of any individual.

8. Concerns the supervision of financial institutions.

9. Includes geological information about wells.

The three exclusions cover public records that:

1. Protect the existence of an ongoing criminal law-enforcement investigation when the subject is unaware of that investigation and disclosure could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.
2. Protect the existence of informant records when the informant’s status hasn’t been officially confirmed (limited to criminal law-enforcement agencies).
3. Protect the existence of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism records when the existence of such records is classified (limited to the Federal Bureau of Investigation).

Challenge: What happens if your request is denied?

Last year, the U.S. government said it received 651,254 public-records requests. It fulfilled 50.33 percent of those requests completely; partially fulfilled 43.06 percent, and denied 6.61 percent.

If your request is denied, the Berkman Center’s Digital Media Law project explains many of the remedies available to you. The easiest path is to revise and resubmit your request to provide more detail, or specify the information you’re requesting. You may also appeal the denial, request that classified information be declassified, or — if all else fails — file a lawsuit.

Challenge: How quickly will the agency process my request?

One common challenge for journalists is a delay in getting a response from an agency or in receiving the documents. FOIA instructs agencies to handle requests as quickly and efficiently as possible, usually within 20 business days. However, sometimes an agency may require an extension if the request is complex, or if it has a backlog of requests. The agency may also ask you to revise your request if the amount of information you’re requesting is too broad.

In rare situations, the government may grant an expedited review of a request if the person requesting the records has clearly explained a compelling reason for the urgency. Specifically, the government may expedite your request if someone’s life, physical safety or due-process rights are in jeopardy.

Additional FOIA resources

Many organizations, including the government, have created guides for navigating FOIA:

How can you be most efficient in navigating the public-records process? Being diligent about following up helps. So does developing relationships with key people in the records or communications departments of government offices — especially at the local level or with organizations you work with often. By contacting a specific person rather than a general department, you can more directly communicate what information you need, and they can more quickly connect you with this information.

Yes, these individuals are employed by the agency you’re seeking information from. But they can sometimes help you cut through unnecessary bureaucracy, giving you more information and time for writing your story.

We talked more about FOIAs in a live chat with Tom Nash, news editor of MuckRock, a public records request service. You can replay the chat here:

While Ellyn Angelotti is an attorney, this article is for informational purposes only and is not to be considered legal advice. Read more


Wisconsin’s government has other ties to journalism orgs

The Cap Times | Wisconsin Reporter

The state budget bill that would kick the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism off the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is on Gov. Scott Walker’s desk. Legislators objected to a journalism nonprofit receiving office space in a state building.

Jack Craver asks: So how’s that different from news organizations getting office space at the state Capitol? Read more

magnifying glass and puzzle

Seattle Times asks readers to help with a mystery

The Seattle Times

Seattle-based Social Security Administration investigator Joe Velling is trying to untangle the case of Lori Ruff, who killed herself in Texas in late 2010. She left behind a box that showed she’d stolen the identity of a child who died in a fire in Fife, Wash., then changed her name legally.

The paper has put photos of clues to Ruff’s identity online and asked readers for clues. “So far, we’ve gotten a lot of response, but they haven’t cracked the case yet,” reporter Maureen O’Hagan wrote in an email to Poynter. Read more

Magnifying glass on laptop

Portland Press Herald investigation leads governor to issue gag order

Colin Woodard received several tips last year about “a reign of terror” on the staff of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.

As he looked into the tips, Woodard began unraveling a twisted truth: Patricia Aho, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection commissioner and a former corporate and industrial lobbyist, has been fighting against laws and programs that her former clients in the real estate development, drug, chemical and oil companies opposed.

His reporting led to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, “The Lobbyist in the Henhouse,” which was published this week.

The three-part series offers a detailed look at programs that have reportedly suffered as a result of Aho’s leadership — including the Kid Safe Products Act, a law that protects children, babies and fetuses from harmful chemicals. Woodard also discovered that Aho oversaw a clampdown on the DEP’s personnel that limited their ability to share information with policy staff, lawmakers and one another.

His investigation is a reminder of the need for watchdog stories that expose wrongdoings, raise and answer important questions, and ultimately spur change.

Reporting the series

Colin Woodard

Woodard, a state and national affairs reporter for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, spent seven months reporting and writing the series. For the first three months, he balanced his time between the investigation and unrelated reporting. By mid-February, he said via email, the investigation became his primary focus.

“The greatest challenge — and one that was extremely time consuming — was building a network of contacts and sources within or recently departed from the department,” Woodard said. “Most everyone was fearful of losing their jobs or of retaliation against friends or current employers, so it took time to win trust even with those who spoke not-for-attribution. They were all taking great personal and professional risk by speaking to me, and some have been quite courageous.”

Woodard, who won the 2012 George Polk Award for Education Reporting, admits he wasn’t that surprised by the investigation’s findings.

“‘Regulatory capture’ is, sadly, a fairly common phenomenon,” he said. “I did learn a great deal about the many ways in which a law can be effectively neutered in those arcane processes few of us have the time to write about: regulatory rule making, staffing, and enforcement.”

Making the time for a lengthy investigation

Ambitious projects at large news organizations, like The New York Times’ “Snow Fall,” get a lot of attention — and rightfully so. But if you’re a journalist at a smaller news outlet with far fewer resources, it can be hard to imagine creating similar projects.

“Lobbyist in the Henhouse” shows any news organization can do excellent storytelling. “I think this kind of reporting is essential,” Woodard said, “and perhaps the most important contribution a newspaper can make to their readers and community.”

In recent years, other small papers have been recognized for their investigations — the Bristol Herald Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into natural-gas royalties and the Concordia Sentinel’s ongoing investigations into a Louisiana Klan murder come to mind. These are the stories that journalism — and communities — need more of; they’re reminders of why we need journalists.

“Watchdog reporting is the most important thing we do. We do probing journalism on behalf of Maine’s citizens so that they know what their government is doing and how it affects their lives, and we are not going to let a gag order from the governor or anyone else prevent us from fulfilling that duty,” Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Managing Editor Steve Greenlee said via email.

“We in the journalism industry operate in a time of tight resources, but our most important responsibility is to inform citizens about what those in power are doing. Watchdog journalism is the top priority, our most important mission. If we don’t do that, we risk becoming irrelevant.”

Woodard credited Greenlee and Executive Editor Cliff Schechtman, saying he was “enormously supportive and helped focus the narratives.” Staffer Brian Robitaille created the layout of the project and helped create headlines for it, while Michael Fisher created the graphics.

“I feel fortunate to be working with these people and in a news organization that’s committed to this kind of time-consuming watchdog journalism — and in my native state, no less,” Woodard said.

Reaction to the investigation

On Tuesday, Republican Governor Paul LePage ordered all state employees to stop talking to Maine Today Media’s Portland Press Herald, the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal.

Governor Spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett told the Press Herald that Maine Today Media “had made it clear that it opposed this administration.’ She declined to elaborate, saying that responses from the administration could be gleaned from Associated Press reports or through document requests via the Freedom of Access Act.”

Aho has disputed the investigation’s findings, saying her former work as a lobbyist had no impact on her role as DEP commissioner.

The Portland Press Herald reports that, by contrast, Democrats have said the findings in the investigation are “troubling.”

Greenlee said that, overall, reader response has been “overwhelmingly positive and supportive of our journalism.”

Neither he nor Schechtman seem especially worried about the gag order.

“Our mission is to shine the light on how government impacts the lives of Mainers,”  Schechtman told the Press Herald. “No threats of gag orders from the LePage administration will stop us from doing probing journalism on behalf of citizens.” Read more

Wisconsin Road Sign

Talk-show host: Wisconsin Watch move should ‘appall those of us in the conservative media’

WTMJ | Associated Press | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | CJR |
A Wisconsin legislative committee’s motion to kick the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism off the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison “combines some of the worst aspects of the IRS and DOJ scandals,” Milwaukee radio talk-show host Charlie Sykes writes, “using government to punish those perceived as political enemies combined with a clear assault on the free press. … The move should especially appall those of us in the conservative media.”

Republican state senator Dale Schultz called the action “petty,” the Associated Press reports.

The committee’s vote was “12-4 along party lines, with Republicans in the majority,” Karen Herzog reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Read more


New Yorker introduces Aaron Swartz-developed privacy tool Strongbox

The New Yorker | The Washington Post | The New York Times | Wired | Guardian | All Things D

The New Yorker on Tuesday introduced its new, anonymous electronic tip tool Strongbox, coincidentally on the heels of renewed concerns over privacy for journalists’ sources following revelations of Department of Justice surveillance of AP staffers (which The Washington Post’s Timothy B. Lee notes is “likely perfectly legal”)

The Strongbox site ostensibly allows people to submit letters, documents, emails or any other files to the New Yorker anonymously. It was developed in conjunction with Wired investigations editor Kevin Poulsen and the late Web activist and developer Aaron Swartz, who hanged himself in January after facing charges of wire fraud and computer fraud. Poulsen, whose publication also is owned by New Yorker parent Conde Nast, wrote about Swartz’s involvement, and why Strongbox was a necessity.

There’s a growing technology gap: phone records, e-mail, computer forensics, and outright hacking are valuable weapons for anyone looking to identify a journalist’s source. With some exceptions, the press has done little to keep pace: our information-security efforts tend to gravitate toward the parts of our infrastructure that accept credit cards.

Read more