|By Jacqui Banaszynski
At the many writing workshops I lead, the primary struggles reporters raise involve, duh, writing. But when six health-reporting fellows gathered recently, the challenges they brought to the fore centered around reporting. And these were not about exotic reporting adventures, but about the foundation of what we must do to serve the public with independent, needed information. Each and all, they described being blocked by government officials who refused to provide requested information, often with vague responses, lame excuses or flat-out silence. And often that obfuscation involved the spending of taxpayer money or the implementation of a promised program.
Example: A reporter is trying to determine how much public schools in her state spend to provide feminine hygiene products as required by law; she has been told that school officials can’t cite a specific because such expenditures are farmed out to third-party vendors.
Example: A reporter is trying to track how corrections and health officials will provide required Medicaid coverage to people in prison or recently released; the public information officer has told her he can’t answer her question but will send a brief statement.
Example: Several of the reporters lamented the black hole that sucks up Freedom of Information Act requests; responses are long delayed or simply not forthcoming.
We brainstormed solutions, which again and again came back to the need for reporting that is both more determined and more agile. And that often comes back to more expansive sourcing and pointed follow-up questions.
Don’t know how to word a FOIA? Look online for templates, or reach out to journalism associations like Investigative Reporters and Editors or Society of Professional Journalists. Or just email an investigative reporter you admire, and ask for a few minutes of help.
A public info officer says he “can’t” answer a question? Ask if he means he can’t or he won’t. If he says he can’t, ask why: Does he not know the answer? Isn’t it his job to get it? If he can’t who can? What’s his supervisor’s name?
Denied explanations of certain public expenditures? Ask for a line-item budget — and get help learning how to read it. Or ask to see the contracts with those third-party vendors; do they really have spending discretion? In the case of those missing period products, call or visit the school nurse and ask if she has an adequate budget for needed supplies.
Basic as this might seem, none of it is stuff we know without learning it. As tough as this work has always been, it has gone exponentially moreso as lawyers, public information officers and even laws themselves circle the wagons around what they considered “privileged” information. Both of those realities require us to ground ourselves more deeply in public records work and disclosure laws — and in our ability to demand what is owed to the public.
Both also argue for more partnerships among reporters, news organizations and associations even as our work grows more isolated.Some journalists have expertise others don’t as more reporters work freelance or with diminished newsrooms, the more they need to create their own back-up. With very rare exceptions, I’ve found journalists willing to share ideas and strategies. Don’t forget to hunt around Storyboard or the other generous sites where journalists discuss the craft. There are also non-journalists in specialty fields who can tell you, on background, how to navigate those fields; you don’t have to limit your interviewing to a sanctioned direct-line source. And never hesitate when seeking information from government officials and employees on behalf of the public. You’re doing your job — and should insist that they do theirs.
Most of all, when stuck, ask for help. Even when you work alone, the best journalism takes a team.