Reporting 101: Citizen Journalism
With fake news and misinformation at an all-time high, here’s how you can step up — and hold our leaders accountable
By Brad Hamilton
Whether you voted for Donald Trump with the hope he would save the country or against him because you fear he’ll destroy it, you owe it to yourself, Mr. or Ms. Average American, to make sure he keeps his promises.
And doesn’t wreck our republic.
With the incoming president taking office tomorrow, there’s much to be done by citizen reporters to track what’s going on behind the scenes of his administration. If you want to help, here’s a good way: obtain reliable information about what his team is up to — good, bad or indifferent — and share it with everyone you know.
This is the time of the independent contributor, and the need to step up couldn’t be more urgent. No more excuses, bloggers, freelancers and regular Joes. No more griping. Let’s call this effort a groundswell antidote to fake news. But if you want to add your voice, you must do it well. You must to do it responsibly.
As a journalist for more than 30 years, I have witnessed the failings of my industry. The national media has been particularly inadequate when it comes to holding the U.S. president to account. Our White House press corps is an exalted cocoon, one where going hard on hypocrisy, hidden motives, violation of laws, misinformation, deceit or outright corruption means risking one’s access.
Collectively, these pool reporters have provided far less substantive scrutiny of leaders of both parties than is healthy for the country. Partly this is due to them having to cover an onslaught of briefings and news, which makes it nearly impossible for them to cut away from the herd and devote the time needed to uncover serious wrongdoing. (Woodward and Bernstein never interviewed President Nixon and didn’t attend his press conferences.)
Investigative teams dedicated to doing just that have been hacked away to near extinction in TV, radio and print. They are not gone completely, thank goodness. But their numbers are greatly reduced.
The result is that too many lies, secret deals, bad decisions and failed policies carry on without the public’s knowledge or understanding. How is that good for anyone?
Just a few of Trump’s tweets deriding the media
Trump himself has repeatedly complained that the media is “dishonest,” which is his way of saying he thinks they have not covered him fairly. He’s railed at the influence of fake news, which played a role in his election but also used against him. So he relies on tweets to convey his thoughts and objectives directly to the public. Well, here’s your chance to respond. Make it a dialogue. Consider this a call to publish.
But what exactly can you do? Plenty, even if you’ve never been to journalism school or worked in a newsroom. You just have to be willing to put in some effort. You have to research. You have to develop sources. Pick a topic, an area of interest or specific agency and dive in.
This part isn’t difficult. First step is to get familiar with what Trump is planning. Here’s Politico’s rundown of his cabinet appointees and nominees. There are many good sources with brief profiles of the team, including this one in the New York Times, this one in the Washington Post, and this one in Marie Claire.
This site, called Trump Tracker, provides a list of all his campaign promises (many directly from his website or Twitter feed) and announcements on what he intends to do as president.
You might want to poke through this amazing collection of more than 400 documents compiled by the Washington Post in the writing of Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher’s best-selling biography “Trump Revealed.” The book and the documents (reports, transcripts, records, etc.) provide a nearly endless opportunity to inform yourself about our new commander-in-chief.
At the Contently Foundation, where I serve as editor-in-chief, we pay for our contributors to get LexisNexis, a research service used by big media companies because of its vast archives of newspapers, magazines, wires, trade journals and broadcast transcripts. It’s also great for finding people you might want to interview. (We recently ran a search that turned up more than 900 current or former FBI employees, complete with business emails and phone numbers.) The company offers a discount to freelancers of $19.95 per month, plus free training to show you how to use it. You can sign up through this site.
And it can’t hurt to tune in to TV and radio shows devoted to politics. You should watch both right- and left-leaning programs, pairing Fox with CNN or MSNBC, for example, and NPR with Rush Limbaugh.
The better informed you are, the greater your chances of having an impact.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
One of the best tools for reporters is the Freedom of Information request. Submitting such requests is quite easy. You don’t have to work for a name-brand news organization or be employed as a staff reporter. Go online to any federal or state agency and run a “Freedom of Information” search, which should lead you to the office’s online submission form.
Did you know that you can request the FBI file on any dead person? (Or yourself, if you care to do so.) You can also ask for who else is asking. Try it.
Here’s a sample request, made to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which monitors workplace injuries:
“Under the Freedom of Information Act, I request any and all data, reports, violations, fines and other agency documents related to on-the-job construction accidents between January 1 2014 and January 1 2015 in all 50 states. My preference would be to receive such information electronically. Please respond to the following email and/or phone number.”
I’ve done this sort of thing any number of times for New York City, where there are numerous construction mishaps, some of them fatal. It’s always useful.
(By the way, don’t underestimate the value of injury or accident data. Harper’s magazine scored a classic scoop for its Index in 1991, discovering that 15 employees of the Library of Congress suffered work-related injuries because of “hot substances.” Another 51 got hurt by “floors or other walking surfaces.”)
The trick is figuring out what to ask for and working with the government to best request that information.
I like to start by calling the public affairs or records access office and letting them know what I’m doing and what I’m after. Ask how up to date the data is. Ask if anyone else has recently requested the same information. Are there certain internal terms or phrases you should use in your request? How long will it take?
In some cases, you can get a faster response without submitting a FOIA. (FOIL, by the way, is the term used for state agencies. It stands for Freedom of Information Law. The federal version is an act.) Helpful agencies often suggests alternatives so you can obtain the information you want without having to make an official request.
There’s an astonishing amount of material available through FOIA/FOIL that no one thinks to ask for, including emails, contracts, employment records, internal analysis, requests for proposals (RFPs), all of which fall under the provision. Think creatively about what kind of documentation might exist related to policy, planning, communication, action.
When I did this story about a tragic boating accident, the Coast Guard handed over boxes of stuff, including a minute-by-minute accounting of its response, distress-call recordings, an after-action report, photographs and charts. Department of Justice documents helped shape my story about an international drug ring allegedly run by a former USC football player. This light-hearted piece was based on a FOIL to the state of New Jersey, after it announced plans to set up medical-marijuana dispensaries.
Fortunately, most agencies have websites with mission statements that describe what areas they oversee. If you don’t know what all might be available, call the agency and ask that of someone in public affairs or records access.
If you plan to submit a large number of requests or need matching data from multiple agencies, consider getting help from MuckRock. It’s a service that charges a small fee and will submit requests and collect responses for you. We’ve used it at the Contently Foundation.
WHAT TO COVER
At the moment, the five biggest issues appear to be: accusations over Russia’s meddling in the presidential election; Trump’s potential conflicts of interest; his plan for Obamacare; what he’ll do to try to create new jobs; and how he might reform our taxes.
But there is no shortage of scrutiny required elsewhere, including on Wall Street, immigration, trade agreements, NATO, the environment, education, corporate lobbying, defense. Don’t limit yourself. There are likely to be significant policy changes at many, if not most, federal agencies. If you follow an issue, concentrate on that.
No matter what subject interests you, plenty of in-depth reporting already exists.
Take Trump’s conflicts of interest.
Certainly, every American should expect the incoming president’s focus to be what’s good for the country — that he won’t place his own business interests ahead of the nation’s. The president-elect has recognized the importance of this issue, though many have criticized his plan to hand over his businesses to his sons as being insufficient.
Even so, most Americans have no idea how many potential issues could come up.
Newsweek did a great piece detailing some of Trump’s overseas interests and investments, along with possible problems they might create regarding his priorities as president, particularly in the Philippines.
Eric Lipton from the New York Times has been strong on this issue, being the first to point out that foreign ambassadors staying at Trump’s hotel in D.C. might choose to book a room there as a way of currying favor with the new president. (One of the key failures of the press during the presidential election was our lack of coverage of the emoluments clause.) Lipton and others from the Times did this rundown of potential international conflicts.
You can piggyback on the work of other journalists (just make sure you cite them), and even ask for their help directly. I recommend reaching out to organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Institute for Nonprofit News, which represents foundations devoted to investigative reporting. There’s an encouraging number of first-rate but little-known outlets that can assist your reporting and maybe publish your story.
Just one example would be Fair Warning, a site that covers public health, safety and environmental issues, along with corporate conduct. It’s headed by Myron Levin, a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and National Press Club award winner, whose email and direct phone number are listed on the site.
Often the best way to get valuable information is to talk to someone who knows what’s going on. In their pursuit of Nixon’s dirty deeds, Woodward and Bernstein plowed through mountains of documents. But they couldn’t have achieved success without the help of Mark Felt, an FBI agent who tipped them off to the schemes of Nixon’s inner circle and later became known as “Deep Throat.”
So how do you get your own Deep Throat?
By being calm, open-minded and doggedly persistent.
Start by working the agency that oversees your area of interest. No matter who gets put in charge of the Pentagon, Justice Department or EPA, that person inherits a small army of career civil servants, people with various skills who worked there long before the incoming administration and will continue to do so long after they’re gone.
These folks have enormous influence on the functioning of the federal government, along with great insights and information.
You can find them by combing through official directories of the government; most departments now make available the names of virtually every employee. You can also use the LexisNexis contact source databases. (We do training specifically based on how to identify and make contact with sources.)
So you get someone on the line. Now what?
“Hey, I’m a reporter covering education issues and wanted to reach out. I am assuming everyone there in your office is expecting quite a few changes with the new administration, so I thought I would introduce myself and let you know that I’m keen to hear about those changes.”
Cold-calling is an art, not a science. Try to put yourself in their position. They likely are worried, maybe fearful, of what will happen to them personally or to their office when the new president takes control. Certainly their top concern could be getting fired. So recognize that up front.
“Look, I don’t want to make you nervous. I can understand where you might be coming from. Nobody wants to risk their career by talking to the press. So let me reassure you that I will never use your name in my story and won’t even tell anyone that you and I spoke. Sound OK?”
If they decline to talk, don’t give up.
“People need to know what’s going on with the new president, and you’re in a position to provide our readers with invaluable information that can affect the public. All I ask is that you think about this. About how you could make a difference.”
If they haven’t hung up on you by this point, try to get them to comment on something relatively innocuous. A fact you could have learned by looking at the agency’s web site or contacting its public relations office — in an area that indicates you support the agency’s work.
“For example, I’m interested in the help that the department provides to students after they leave high school. I understand that Education gives grants and work-study funding to about 13 million college students, support they probably desperately need. Is that figure accurate?”
People tend to like to talk about their work. So ask. “What are you in charge of over there? How did you end up at the department? Is it a good job?”
Once you establish a rapport, check in with that person regularly. “Hey, there. Just calling to say hello. I enjoyed our talk last week. So is anything new going on?”
The point of all this is to build sources who could be motivated to reveal important developments within their departments.
And don’t forget about powerful people in public service who might share your interest in checking up on the Trump administration. People like Senator Bernie Sanders, who told GQ in this interview: “Every decision that he makes is going to impact his bottom line of some business that he owns.”
There’s nothing stopping you from contacting his office or those of other Congressional leaders and letting them know what you’re planning, and asking for their help.
If you combine documents, data and reports with first-hand interviews from those in the know, you put yourself in position to get exclusive stories.
And have a real impact over the next four years.
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