In 1959, the year I was born, journalist John Howard Griffin published an account of his experiment to live briefly as a black man in the Jim Crow South. With the help of a physician, he took drugs to flood his system with melanin and spent hours under an ultraviolet lamp to change his skin color. I was about 12 years old when I read “Black Like Me.” It had a profound effect on me, a white middle-class kid growing up in the suburbs about an hour from Philadelphia.
At the time, I was already nursing a healthy dose of outrage at injustices I saw all around me. I knew that mostly people of color lived in the poor neighborhood downtown. I knew about Rosa Parks, lunch counter protests, freedom riders and George Wallace. But I had little grasp of the historical and structural forces that created and perpetuated these injustices. I certainly didn’t learn about them at school, where a teacher held up as a hero Kit Carson, the federal agent who led the merciless scorched-earth campaign that forced thousands of Navajo men, women and children on the Long Walk from their homelands to a desolate internment camp, where many perished from disease and exposure.
I had to reconcile the version of events that was taught at school with what I saw on the news and read in newspapers, magazines or books around our house. Usually, the narrative we learned at school left out the voices of the conquered, enslaved and marginalized.
I admired Griffin for undertaking what seemed like a sincere effort to understand discrimination and racism firsthand. It seemed like an inspired idea to show white people that all they had to do was add melanin to their skin to see how pervasive racism is and experience it themselves. I didn’t think he was trying to say that he could know through his brief experiment what it was like to be a black man. Rather, I thought he was trying to challenge white people to imagine what it would be like to walk in a black man’s shoes. After all, his title comes from a line in Langston Hughes’ poem, “Dream Variations,” which captures the great writer’s wish “to whirl and to dance” and be free of the smothering oppression of “the white day.”
It didn’t occur to me at the time that the people most in need of responding to Griffin’s challenge would not read such a book. And I was too young to realize that Griffin was inadvertently sending the message that although Hughes and many, many other gifted black writers had already provided eloquent, gut-wrenching testimony to the dehumanizing consequences of racism, it took a white man to validate it.
White people can never truly understand what it’s like to know that every day brings the potential for brutality, cruelty, humiliation or death just for walking down the block. Or standing on the street. Or going for a run. Or watching TV at home. Or sleeping in your own bed. Or just trying to get home.
But we can act. We can write and call our mayors, governors, and state and federal representatives and tell them we won’t stand for business as usual. We can demand that cities start screening programs that weed out racist or damaged individuals unfit to wield power before they’re sent out to patrol the streets. We can tell our elected officials that we won’t stand for police forces that allow their officers to kill black citizens. We can tell them that we demand that police who kill unarmed black citizens face charges. Simply losing a job is not enough for casually extinguishing a life.
White people cannot know what it’s like to be black. But we can know what it’s like to be human. And it’s time we find a way to make sure every person of color can whirl and dance in the sun even before the white day is done. #TyreNichols
Filing freedom of information requests can seem daunting for first-timers, especially for freelancers who worry about sinking time and resources into ventures that might not pay off. Yet at a time when our fundamental right to a free press is under attack, reporters need every tool at their disposal to monitor the daily operations of government. FOIA is a critical tool not just for journalists but for democracy.
Our right to government transparency was not always a given, CUNY law professor Sarah Lamdan pointed out. FOIA was the brainchild of John Moss, a California congressman who denounced government secrecy during the Cold War, when federal officials classified more and more documents, making the business of government increasingly opaque. Despite years of campaigning for legislation to require government transparency, Moss failed to find a Republican co-sponsor until Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, assumed the presidency. Suddenly a young Donald Rumsfeld, then an Illinois congressman, signed on because he believed, the Chicago Daily News reported, Johnson’s policies made the law necessary.
Johnson signed the law, begrudgingly, on July 4, 1966, while urging limits on its power in his signing statement. The law’s scope has expanded and contracted ever since, tracking changes in the political landscape. As records once again started disappearing during the Watergate crisis, “Congress passed a huge amendment to make the Freedom of Information Act stronger,” Lamdan said, only to see President Ford veto it as unconstitutional and risky. But Congress overrode Ford’s veto, codifying many of the transparency tools we use today. The 1974 version set limits on how much agencies can charge for records, required responses within 20 days and allowed people to sue for withheld records.
Trump, unlike his predecessors, never issued a memo outlining a position on transparency, Lamdan said. But his administration’s actions speak volumes. Let’s just say, the Trump administration is not a friend of FOIA.
But FOIA, thanks to amendments passed under the Obama administration, requires a presumption of disclosure as a first step: agencies must lean toward releasing rather than withholding records and documents. And with an administration seemingly intent on dismantling not just regulations but also the machinery of government itself, reporters can’t afford to pass on a powerful tool that makes those actions visible to taxpayers — who have a right to know what their government is doing.
Tips and tricks to bring home the documents
No one disputes that successful FOIA requests can take time and effort. You need a working knowledge of the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. §552, to understand what you can and can’t ask for. You need to think carefully about what you want (and how it might serve a story), whether an agency actually has what you’re looking for and how to frame a request to maximize the odds that you’ll get it. You need to be persistent — don’t hesitate to pester the FOIA officer handling your request. And, above all, you need to be patient.
I’m still waiting for FOIA officers at the Environmental Protection Agency to finish sending me “responsive documents” (as they’re called in FOIA parlance) for a request I filed last June. Luckily, because I asked the officer to send documents on a rolling basis, as he processed them, I had enough evidence to build a case that the EPA relied on flawed science from Monsanto to register a weed killer that’s caused widespread damage to crops, family farms and wild plants throughout soybean country. That story ran in November, but I may well have follow-ups to pitch as more documents come in.
Experts at the workshop focused on using FOIA to pry records from environmental agencies, but much of their advice applies to any federal agency. Among the tips and tricks you can start using right away:
Be specific. Don’t just say, “I want all the emails between the Department of Interior and outside parties on national monuments.” Think about who’s most likely to provide insight on policy decisions. And come up with specific search terms. The narrower, the better.
It helps to put yourself in the shoes of the person handling your request, said Eric Lipton of The New York Times. Think about how you would run a query if you had access to a federal email system. For a story about industry influence over the EPA’s pesticide office, Lipton asked for correspondence between one person at the agency — Richard Keigwin, head of the Office of Pesticide Programs — and industry players and lobbyists, using the outside parties’ email domain names as a roadmap. “The officer goes to this individual’s email account and does queries on those domain names, Whatever emails come up from those domain names are the emails that are going to be produced as part of this FOIA request,” Lipton said.
“That’s very helpful to the officer, because if I were to just say, ‘Give me all emails to Richard Keigwin that have to do with pesticides, well the guy’s in charge of the pesticides program, so I mean, how many emails is that going to be? How many thousands of pages?” Limit your requests to those parties you think have an interest in the issue you’re investigating.
Be specific about dates, too, but don’t limit the end date, advised ProPublica research editor Derek Kravitz. “The end date should always be until this request is finally fulfilled,” Kravitz said. “It should never be a specific date because they can use that, wait a year and then only give you that limited date range. And that can hurt you in the newsgathering process.”
Simplify, simplify. Agencies tend to classify requests. The EPA divides them into simple, complex and expedited, and each has different average response times. The average number of working days it takes to complete a complex request for EPA headquarters is 267 days, Lipton said. The average response for a simple request is 27 days.
If you put in a very narrow request by, for example, specifying email correspondence between two people on a given date, involving a specific issue or subject line, you’ll get it back in a matter of weeks, he advised. “If you really want something quickly, you can do a simple request and you may get it really, really fast.”
Ask for electronic records. The Center for Public Integrity’s Jie Jenny Zou recommends asking for “electronic and machine-readable records.” That prevents agencies from giving you a photo of a record, forcing you to try to run them through an optical character recognition program, which is time-consuming and may not catch everything. “And if you are requesting data,” she said, “try to ask for data in its native format or nonproprietary format. So instead of Excel, ask for a comma-separated-values file, or csv file.”
Befriend the FOIA officer. Don’t just rely on email. Pick up the phone. FOIA officers can tell you what limitations they’re operating under and help you narrow search terms, dates or names to produce documents on a reasonable timeline. I’m on a first-name basis with an EPA FOIA officer who even brought in his supervisor to help me get documents I was after.
If you’re a freelancer and your request seems hopelessly stalled, don’t hesitate to drop names, Zou said. FOIA officers often aren’t familiar with ProPublica, she said, but they know its collaborators, like the Associated Press. When she mentions big-name partners, documents magically materialize. “A freelancer can do that too, if you have a relationship with an editor for a strong publication,” Zou said.
Ask agencies to justify redactions. Suing an agency to challenge redacted materials isn’t a practical option for journalists who don’t have access to the legal resources of a major outlet. But Kravitz suggests a workaround: the Vaughan Index, a document agencies prepare in opposing the disclosure of information under FOIA. “You can request a Vaughan Index, which will literally go through every exemption, every redaction on every page, and give a justification as to why they feel that meets the exemption criteria,” Kravitz said.
You can use the justifications to challenge the redactions or to report on the agency’s failure to disclose. You can also triangulate by filing matching state public records requests or requests to other federal agencies to see if their redactions match. Most likely they won’t, since the redaction process is subjective. Then you can try to piece together all the unredacted parts to see if they tell a story.
Ease into the FOIA process by piggybacking on other requests. Federal agencies log all their FOIA requests. You can ask for an agency’s log to see what other people have asked for on an issue you’re interested in, Then ask for records that look promising.
For a story about the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, The Times’ Lipton asked for the agency’s FOIA log and saw that a person with the Project on Government Oversight was asking for the BSEE director’s speeches while reporters at major outlets were asking for other aspects of BSEE’s operations. “Once these FOIAs have been produced and completed and the documents are done, you could go to the FOIA officer and say, “I want a copy of FOIA 2018-200005, and they’ll send it to you really quickly because they’ve already redacted it,” Lipton said. “So you piggyback off of the work of others.”
Some federal agencies post responses at foiaonline.gov, so you can go online and search all the filed FOIAs and download completed responses.
As a freelancer, I understand why others hesitate to tackle FOIA. Filing records requests takes time away from paying assignments and other chores you need to manage to make sure you can pay the bills. But if you’re willing to make the initial effort to understand the law and figure out how to make it work for you, you may even get hooked on transparency. If you still need inspiration, consider the words of John Moss, who fought for over a decade to secure the rights of the public and press to inspect public records:
“Our system of government is based on the participation of the governed, and as our population grows in numbers it is essential that it also grow in knowledge and understanding. We must remove every barrier to information about—and understanding of—government activities consistent with our security if the American public is to be adequately equipped to fulfill the ever more demanding role of responsible citizenship.”
Further reading and resources.
CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism FOIA guide.
Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI). Analyzes federal environmental data, websites, institutions and policy with a mission to improve environmental data stewardship and to promote environmental health and environmental justice. EDGI cover four areas: 1) archiving vulnerable environmental data, 2) monitoring changes to information about the environment, energy and climate on federal websites, 3) interviewing federal employees about threats and changes to environmental health agencies, and 4) imagining, conceptualizing and moving toward Environmental Data Justice.
MuckRock. File, track and share public records requests.
The Office of Governmental Information Services. FOIA ombudsman, provides oversight of federal agencies with congressional authority to review FOIA policies, procedures and compliance and identify ways to improve compliance. Resolves FOIA disputes between Federal agencies and requesters.
For the past few months, I’ve been working on an investigative story that requires filing public records requests in several states. I tend to file more federal than state requests, which means I’m used to waiting, and waiting, to get my hands on documents. Sometimes they’re never produced.
So I was pleasantly surprised when several states produced the information I asked for within days or a week of my request. But then I ran up against the laws of Arkansas and Tennessee.
I knew a handful of states prohibit out-of-staters from obtaining records. But it wasn’t until this past week that I had to personally contend with laws that limit freedom of information requests to state residents only — even if the consequences of those actions cross state lines.
An attorney with an Arkansas state agency told me that he had the records I wanted, but was denying my request because I don’t live there. (I checked with a lawyer at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to make sure the residency requirement was still in effect. He confirmed that it is.)
I filed two public records requests in Tennessee, one to a university and another to a state agency. Jason Miller, an agency attorney, emailed me this message: “The Department denies your request pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. §10-7-503(a)(2) on the basis that state records are open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee, and your request does not appear to be submitted by a Tennessee citizen.” A university administrator told me she would deny my request unless I produced a valid Tennessee driver’s license or current utility bill.
Enterprising reporters can find proxies to file requests on their behalf. I found someone in Arkansas willing to help me through the Arkansas Press Association. I’m still working on finding a proxy in Tennessee. (For more tips on how to access public records from state and federal agencies, check out “The Science Writers’ Investigative Reporting Handbook.”)
Virginia also has a residency requirement, though it does allow exemptions for journalists whose outlets publish in the state.
Residency requirements impede journalists’ ability to do our jobs by blocking access to public documents that may be critical to investigations that cross state lines. They interfere with our ability to inform citizens about issues that affect them.
States have defended their residency requirements by saying out-of-state requests strain resources that should be reserved for their citizens. That’s what Virginia Solicitor General Earle Duncan Getchell argued in 2013 before the Supreme Court in McBurney v. Young.
The case was brought by two out-of-state residents, Mark McBurney of Rhode Island and Roger Hurlbert of California, who challenged Virginia’s denial of their request on constitutional grounds. Getchell argued that handling out-of-state requests creates a financial burden because the state has to hire people to do the work but can’t charge for overhead. “As one who is subject to FOIA requests,” Getchell argued, “we have a finite number of officials and employees who have to address these things.”
Several justices questioned whether fulfilling out-of-state requests really constitutes an added burden, since the state has to maintain the databases for Virginia citizens anyway. But in the end, they ruled in a unanimous decision that denying out-of-state residents access to government records does not violate the U.S. Constitution. “The Court has repeatedly stated that the Constitution does not guarantee the existence of FOIA laws,” Justice Samuel Alioto wrote.
Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that states routinely make decisions that affect citizens beyond their borders. Consider the ongoing efforts by New York, Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states to curb air pollution from coal-fired plants in several states in the South and Midwest — including Virginia and Tennessee. Reporters and citizens in upwind states have every right to know why Tennessee, Virginia and neighboring states have failed to implement pollution controls.
Access to information may not be a constitutional right, but it’s essential for journalists to monitor government and serve the public interest. “Events that occur within Virginia are newsworthy beyond its borders, and non-citizen journalists across the country require access to state records in every jurisdiction,” a coalition of journalism groups argued in an amicus brief in support of McBurney and Hurlbert. “Access to state public records by non-citizens aids comparative and macro-analysis reporting thereby allowing the press to fulfill its watchdog role.”
Residency requirements make a mockery of the transparency that open government laws are meant to embrace. State officials who enforce these restrictions in effect say, we have the documents you want, but you don’t meet our arbitrary requirement, so we’re just not going to give them to you. That attitude undermines the public’s right to know what our government is up to.
The vast majority of states respect that right, with no residency restriction. We can continue to find people to file requests on our behalf in the few outlier states that don’t. Or maybe it’s time to push for an end to hollow talk by elected officials, and make state governments embrace both the spirit and intent of open records laws.
Health and science reporters received a shock a few weeks ago, when they learned they’d soon lose one of the smartest resources out there for covering health care. “It appears that this unique project’s span of more than 12 years of public service to journalism and to the general public will end in December, when HealthNewsReview.org ceases publication,” wrote the site’s founder and editor, Gary Schwitzer. “Our current funding ends then with no replacement funding in sight, and I will slip into retirement.”
The site’s experts and journalists analyze health care research and claims made in studies and press releases — often by calling out those who parrot hyped results — to help reporters avoid common pitfalls. It also provides a database of experts with no affiliation to industry, a particularly valuable tool, given the body of evidence showing that industry-funded research tends to favor the sponsor’s interests.
HealthNewsReview has long provided the type of critical oversight of health research that I wish we had for science reporting as a whole. (The Knight Science Journalism Tracker offered a similar service, peer reviewing science stories, until it shut down in 2014.) There’s no denying that it’s fun to write about the strange beauty of the natural world. And there’s certainly a need for those kinds of stories. But at a time when climate-change deniers occupy the highest offices in the land, it’s imperative that more science-savvy journalists spend time scrutinizing science, to uncover cases where it’s abused to serve private interests.
Many of the science reporters I interviewed for “The Science Writers” Investigative Reporting Handbook” have long covered science as they would any other beat. Deborah Blum, who runs the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, worries that science journalists are too often trained to think the official version of an event is the truth. Yet the truth is multifaceted, she told me, and in the end science is really just about people trying to understand the world around them. “That doesn’t elevate it from being a human enterprise just like everything else, full of hubris and ego and mistakes and cover-ups and all the other things that attend to every human enterprise.”
Journalists play a critical role in democracy by giving readers the information they need to be good citizens. Science journalists can do the same by treating science, and scientists, with skepticism. News stories about the latest science developments are important, said Charles Piller, an investigative reporter for Science magazine, but that’s just part of how the public should understand science. “That’s why investigations into all the elements that might undermine or corrupt or influence the way in which scientific work is understood and interpreted are really vital.” Every day brings new details about the many ways the Trump administration is trying to delegitimize the science that underpins critical health and environmental regulations. We need all the tools at our disposal to monitor and expose abuses of science to serve powerful interests. I hope someone with deep pockets steps in to save HealthNewsReviews.org. But I also hope more science journalists are moved to dig beneath the surface to reveal when individuals and organizations distort science to subvert the public interest. That involves unearthing information of public importance that someone doesn’t want revealed. And making, rather than reporting, news. Now, more than ever, that’s exactly what democracy needs. As Zen radio reporter Scoop Nisker used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
A quarter-century ago, a hard-nosed Chicago Tribune investigative reporter named John Crewdson excoriated science journalists, in a piece headlined “Perky Cheerleaders,” for covering their beat as true believers, anxious for great scientists to perform great feats. “When Professor Schmidtlapp says he’s discovered something big, the science writers, their collective belief reaffirmed (and their own stature enhanced), don’t draw their guns and make him put his cards on the table,” Crewdson argued. “They don’t flyspeck his raw data, don’t check his funding sources, don’t scrutinize his previous articles for mistakes … They like science, they probably admire Schmidtlapp and they’re excited by the prospect that he’s right. So they just ask him how to spell whatever it is and write it down.”
A variation on the “science writers as stenographers” trope has emerged periodically ever since Crewdson landed this first blow. I appreciate the call for greater scrutiny of science and make a similar plea in The Science Writers’ Investigative Reporting Handbook — the third in a series of how-to guides published by members of SciLance, the science writers’ tribe who brought you this blog. (See below, for more on this series.)
But — and this is a big but — I believe this perennial knock on science writers deserves greater scrutiny as well. It overlooks the many examples of tough-minded stories that have revealed how individuals and powerful interests have used and abused science in pursuit of private gain. I also believe, based on countless conversations with colleagues over the years, that many science writers would like to try investigative reporting but haven’t done so because they weren’t sure how to start.
That’s why I sought — and gratefully received — a Peggy Girshman Idea Grant from the National Association of Science Writers. I wanted to demystify investigative reporting for my fellow science writers and give them both the tools and confidence to launch their own investigations. I wanted to share the knowledge I’d picked up on the fly as a greenhorn, and later gleaned from workshops, tutorials, my own accumulated experience and sage advice from veteran investigators. The grant gave me the opportunity to revisit all the materials I’d benefited from over the years and talk shop with veteran investigators who’d parlayed their indignation at injustice into reform-sparking exposés. (It’s not a coincidence that the acronym for Investigative Reporters and Editors is IRE.)
Some reporters believe there’s no real difference between investigative reporting and other types of journalism. For them, it’s all just good reporting. But investigative reporting carries risks you don’t have to worry about with other types of stories. Consider the definition an early mentor of mine, Joe Bergantino, uses in his trainings: investigative reporting is “making something public that someone would rather keep secret that’s of public importance.”
To break that down a little, you’re revealing something someone doesn’t want revealed. Something that has consequences for a lot of people — which means that “someone” probably is in a position of power. And that means there’s a lot riding on what you publish: it’s not just your subject’s reputation that could suffer but yours too, if your story turns out to be wrong. Even if your story is airtight, you’re likely to be extremely unpopular in certain circles. You might even get sued by subjects with the time and money to drag you through a frivolous lawsuit.
On the positive side — and I believe this is a big positive, which is why I wrote this book — you can change people’s lives for the better with these types of stories. And when you make every effort to nail down the facts, and ensure that you have legal protection, you start recognizing blowback for what it is: a sign that your story uncovered something someone would rather keep secret.
In the coming months I’ll share tips and insights from the book on this blog to help journalists — at least those with no intention of being perky cheerleaders — treat science with the same scrutiny they would any other human enterprise.
Ask 50 different science journalists how they started writing about science and you’re likely to get 50 different answers. Still, many of my colleagues came to the field with a science background. I did not. It wasn’t until I started writing about environmental health that I cracked a graduate level molecular biology textbook to understand the sort of disease mechanisms you don’t learn about in a political science seminar. Then I started searching PubMed and was surprised to discover how much information lay locked away in the scientific literature — either sitting behind a paywall or comprehensible only to 100 experts. Though it took quite a lot of time and effort to separate the interesting trend from the interesting artifact at first, I thought readers had a right to know the difference between evidence-based and illusory environmental risks. (Whether communicating evidence increases public acceptance of evidence is a complex story for another day.)
But we can do more than just report on patterns that scientists find. We can unearth those patterns ourselves. Science journalists who come to the enterprise with a science degree are in some ways uniquely qualified to do this. So why don’t more of them do it?
Science journalist Peter Aldhous raised this question on a National Association of Science Writers’ listserv earlier this month, prompted by a discussion of the “sting investigation” by John Bohannon recently published in Science. Bohannon sent a bogus “wonder drug” research paper to 304 pay-to-publish open access journals. More than half of those journals that sent it for review accepted it. (Full disclosure: I work part-time as a senior editor for the magazine section of the open-access journal PLOS Biology.)
Some criticized the story for not using a control group (journals that use the subscription model), while others argued that it’s not Bohannon’s job to run a case-control study. Peter, a contributor to MATTER and Medium who teaches investigative reporting at the University of Santa Cruz Science Communication Program, wrote on the listserv (posted here with his permission):
There are definitely differences between science and reporting, as I discuss with my students at UC Santa Cruz in our classes on investigative journalism. However, I believe passionately that science journalism would be a richer profession if more of its practitioners considered when original data analysis, and even the design and commission or execution of methodologically sound studies, is appropriate.
I asked him to share his thoughts on using data in science reporting and why we don’t see more of it. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Those who have criticized Bohannon, mostly scientists, have focused on the lack of a control, calling it a shoddy science experiment. Do you see a problem, from a journalism perspective, with his methodology?
I’ve been a little critical as well. But my criticism, and surprise, was less with him and more with Science, because Science has a dog in this fight. I know there’s separation between the news side and the original research side. I used to work there, so I know that very well. But I think for a publication that is involved in the traditional model of publishing to run an article that focuses particularly on open access just seemed not terribly well thought through. Even if you think there’s likely to be a problem with open access journals lowering their standards of what they accept because of the business model, why not compare it with a traditional model? I just don’t get why you wouldn’t do it.
Some of the response to that has been, well, look, he’s not a scientist, he’s a journalist, you’ve got to look at these two things separately, they’re not the same discipline. I don’t agree. I believe that sound data analysis can be an integral part of journalism. And in that regard, though there are important differences between journalism and science, I believe journalism can include aspects of the scientific method in gathering the information you use to drive an informed piece of journalism. I think it’s a bit of a false distinction.
What, in your view, is one of the most important things an investigative reporter, or any reporter, should keep in mind when doing an investigation?
Most of the people doing this call themselves investigative reporters. Very few come from a background in science. This is my surprise and disappointment, because a lot of people who are science journalists, like me, were originally trained in science. I happen to have a PhD, but I don’t think it’s necessarily important. But a lot of people have been trained in designing studies, doing statistical analyses, and so on. And I think it’s wholly appropriate for us to keep doing that as we report on the scientific enterprise. I’m not saying you should do a PhD project rather than a news story. There are certain questions, more discrete, more journalistic, that you can get at by applying some of those methods you learned. Unfortunately, we don’t see too much of that, and I think science journalism is poorer for it.
Many science writers take an explanatory or isn’t-science-cool perspective rather than a speaking-truth-to-power journalism perspective. But you’d think people would naturally embrace the same models they used to understand how something works in the natural world to understand how something works to tell a story. Why do you think more people don’t do it?
I think you’ve put your finger on it. This type of journalism does take time and editorial resources. I realize the question of resources is a problem nowadays. However, with some exceptions, I don’t think this stuff was happening to a great extent in the golden days, when there were brimming science sections and generous editorial budgets.
What I think explains it, as you said, is a question of mindset. I think for most science journalists, their model of journalism is explanatory. It’s taking the arcane world of the high priests and priestesses of science and translating what they do into language the ordinary mortal can understand. And I think that’s incredibly valuable and very important if we’re to have an informed society. But it is a different mindset from thinking that part of your job is to keep an eye on these guys and check that science isn’t being used and abused, that there isn’t corruption or fraud. And once you get into that mindset, you’re going to approach things differently. I’d argue that science journalists who have that mindset and wed it to what their training would allow them to do, in terms of data analysis and even studies done as part of the story, it can be very powerful.
It does seem a shame that many who are well-suited to this type of reporting aren’t interested in it. But what about journalists who don’t have a science background and might be intimidated by collecting data and then figuring out what to do with it? What words of wisdom can you share with them?
Whether or not you have training in the scientific method, you should be really aware of the danger of running with scissors. What you don’t want to do is flawed analyses. Unless you are absolutely on top of the method you’re using and really, really know you understand what you’re doing, you want to be taking expert advice.
But I don’t think this is fundamentally different from the rest of what we do. As science journalists we comment on papers that have conclusions based on analyses. If we’re doing our job properly, we have to work out whether it was the right way to do it. We do that by talking to independent sources. If we’re not being appropriately critical, questioning the methods of those we’re writing about, then that’s a problem as well.
But in terms of where do you learn the skills if you don’t have the training already, I’d go back to IRE, which is a fantastically training-centered and professional-development-centered organization. If you want to immerse yourself in this stuff and get a hothouse introduction to it in a very friendly and collegiate environment, you can do no better than to go to the annual IRE [and NICAR, National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting] meeting, which is in Baltimore in February. The whole meeting is devoted to teaching skills and data analysis in journalism, from knowing how to use a spreadsheet and database work, through geographic information systems and statistical analysis, and even coding to do data analysis. If you think you might be interested in this stuff, come along, I’ll see you there!
I give a talk with a slide on exactly that point. I think journalism is all about questions. You don’t typically start a story by aimlessly phoning up sources to shoot the breeze. Stories start because there’s a question. Somebody, somewhere along the line had a question. If you’re doing enterprise scientific journalism, you’re starting with questions about what’s going on in the world. If you’re not in the data state of mind, you’ll think about who you can speak to. And you still absolutely need your human sources to negotiate what might initially be an unfamiliar landscape. But if you’re thinking about data, it’s not just who can I speak to about this, it’s what sources of information are available that I might be able to interview.
I talk about interviewing data because I think that’s a really good way to think about it. Data can give you answers if you know what sorts of questions to ask. It’s adding that string to your bow, saying not only can I ask a bunch of experts what they think about an issue, but how can I start poking into the information itself and seeing what it says. You may think, well, the experts have been all over it, they know everything. But they’re not necessarily asking the questions that your readers might want to know the answer to. It’s realizing that there are other ways of reporting a story and other ways of asking and answering questions that center around data, which may just be sitting there for you to download or may require you to go out and collect. And that’s the only way certain stories are going to come out.
What are particularly good examples of this type of reporting?
USA Today did an interesting series some years back called “The Smokestack Effect” that looked at what kids are breathing in school. Are there worrying levels of air pollution in the environment in which our kids are being educated, and if so what can we do about that? I thought it had an interesting approach. I don’t think there have been major criticisms of the methods and it certainly won some major awards. They did a couple of things. They employed a model of the distribution of air pollution used by the Environmental Protection Agency, and they also did some of their own air pollution monitoring by setting up sensors near schools and looked at the results. There was a whole bunch of conventional reporting around that but the story wouldn’t have been there without those two key bits of data analysis. Also, they didn’t march in blindly and start using a model, they got expert help. I think it’s a neat example of the sort of thing you could do, but it’s a really, really big project.
But these things don’t need to be huge. I’m not claiming that I’ve done anything particularly earth shattering but there’s one example of a story that came up only because I was in a data state of mind. It was an online news story, fairly quick turnaround. I looked at two genome scan companies, one of the surviving companies has been in the news lately, 23andMe, and the other main one at the time, deCODEme. I had my genome done. That cost a bit of money but once I got the scans, I got story ideas just from playing around with the data.
I realized that one of the companies, deCODEme, seemed to be giving a really weird readout for my mitochondrial DNA. I couldn’t make sense of it. That was when the data was presented in a “genome browser” online. I downloaded the data from both companies and matched up the same mitochondrial markers – so there’s some database work there. It became apparent from the downloaded data, which was consistent across the two companies, that something was going on with the display online. I ended up with an annotated spreadsheet showing that there was a screw-up with what was presented online from deCODEme. It turns out it was a software bug, which raises some interesting issues about IT in genomics and the future of medicine. There was no harm done in this case. It just looked like, as I put it in the story, nonhuman DNA. But as we move toward personalized medicine, we don’t want our doctor prescribing drugs based on errors thrown up by software bugs. So there’s a story to write. But it only happened because I was in a data state of mind. It’s the type of story I think science journalists ought to be doing.
Final thoughts on why science journalists should give “scientific” journalism a try?
Why do I do what I do? I really like science. I always loved designing experiments and doing data analysis, and the writing up part – which is probably true of a lot of science journalists. What’s also probably true is that you get out of science because you don’t want to be one of three people in the world who knows everything there is to know on one little tiny bit of an intellectual enterprise. I want to ask questions across a much broader landscape, which I think is the motivation for a lot of science journalists.
So bringing in the type of approach to journalism that I’m talking about is like having the best of both worlds. I’m having the broad look at the world as a journalist, asking the questions I’d always wanted to ask, which for me is fun and what I used to really like about being a scientist. I can do both. Why wouldn’t you do that?
The writing life often inspires a measure of fanciful thinking in the uninitiated, wryly captured by the great Lee Lorenz in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. The scene is an upscale cocktail party. The focus, two middle-aged men: “A writer? Fantastic! I wish I had time to write.”
Add freelancing to the mix and fancy turns to fantasy. Typical comments: “It must be nice to have all that time to yourself.” “Biding time till you get a real job?” “So, I guess you wear PJs till noon? (OK, that’s happened. Once.)
I had a few misconceptions of my own before I started freelancing, centered mostly on how anyone managed it. As a life-long staffer, always moving from one full-time gig to another (charting an improbable path from Wine Spectator to PLOS Biology with pit stops at two nationalmagazines and a museum), I knew how tough editors could be on pitches. Even really good pitches. As a staffer, you can brainstorm with your colleagues until a notion gels into a story. As a freelancer, you’ve got to know multiple outlets and might invest boatloads of time on research before you even start a pitch, only to wait for a response that may never come. I didn’t think I had the stomach for it.
But when circumstances at my job changed and I could no longer write the in-depthstoriesthat kept my creative juices flowing, I started freelancing—thanks largely to the invaluable advice and support from my fellow SciLancers. That satisfied my urge to create but left me spending all my free time—including paid holidays—working.
Full-time freelancing wasn’t an option for me, not with a mortgage in one of the most expensive regions of the country and a husband who’s also a writer. So I opted for a middle way: cut back to part-time to freelance more. I won’t say that giving up the full-time paycheck was easy. But a few strategies helped me find my freelancing legs and keep anxiety (mostly) at bay.
Make a financial plan
Carefully track your financial demands, then estimate how far half your salary will go. Will you lose health benefits as a part-timer? If you’re lucky, your partner has a job that offers a family plan. If not, you could be looking at—brace yourself—a 20-fold increase in insurance costs. You could conceivably pay $600 a month for the same coverage that cost you just $30 a month under your employer’s group plan. A financial planner can help you calculate how much you need to live on for a set period of time. Decide how much of a cushion you want—six months? a year?—then when that time is up, take stock of how much you’ve made freelancing to decide if you can make it work.
Come up with a schedule—and stick to it
Half days can morph into full days before you know it. Ask your boss if you can work two ten-hour days instead of two and a half days. Better yet, see if your boss will let you work from home, then fold the time saved commuting into that ten-hour day. Whatever schedule you settle on, “strictly enforce your office hours,” says SciLancer Adam Hinterthuer (bio)—who took the reverse course, from full-time freelancer to freelancing on top of the equivalent of full-time work for two employers. Stay focused on the task at hand, he advises. “Do not ‘just check in’ on your other gig’s work! I’ve spent whole days just answering e-mail, which just put me further behind on the things I should’ve been doing.”
Create a routine
Once you’re worked out a part-time schedule that you’re happy with and your boss can live with, do the same for your freelance days. Most days I’m at the computer before 8 a.m. and give myself a half hour or so to plan my day. Some people carve out set times for specific tasks. “Mornings can be interview times and afternoon writing times, or vice versa,” Adam says. “Whatever you decide, try to make it a habit.”
Mine old contacts
You can’t overestimate the value of reconnecting with colleagues from past jobs. They know and trust your work and you know what they’re looking for. You don’t have to hustle to get noticed, but you do have to know what’s changed since you left. (Even old friends will cringe if you pitch what they’ve just run.) Drop your old editorial pals a note to say you’ve started freelancing and have a few ideas you’d like to run by them. If you still live nearby, suggest lunch so you can toss around story ideas. I hadn’t worked at Wine Spectator for more years than I’d like to admit, but I combined my old wine knowledge with newly minted science savvy to land twofeatures with the magazine and anotherpair with Wines & Vines, now run by an ex-Spectator editor.
Know your limits
Freelancing on top of full-time work is clearly not for everyone, but even freelancing while working part-time can lead to burnout. Complicated stories can easily eat into your nights and weekends. Be honest with yourself about how hard you’re willing to work—two weeks without a day off? two months?—and how much you’re willing to sacrifice. I’m lucky to have a supportive husband and understanding friends who know I might have to break a date to meet a deadline.
Aspiring science writers often ask me what it takes to be a good journalist, and I invariably answer with some version of “an innate curiosity that borders on pathological and a slightly obsessive need to know what’s going on.”
Of course it doesn’t help to be insatiably curious if you don’t know how to find things no one else has reported. There’s basic reporting, where facts are relatively easy to unearth if you know where to look, and then there’s investigative reporting, where you’re uncovering something that powerful interests want to keep hidden. With investigative reporting, digging deep is key. But deep dives take time, so it’s especially important to stay focused–particularly if you’re a freelancer, since you’re not getting paid as you analyze mountains of material.
A few years ago, I got interested in flame retardants—chemicals used in a wide array of foam consumer products from nursing pillows to couches to slow the spread of fire—when I heard activists claiming that California legislators couldn’t pass bills to regulate the chemicals because industry spent millions to defeat them.
Yet I never saw a reporter document their claims. So I started digging and came up with a classic follow-the-money story for Environmental Health News, documenting a $23 million chemical industry lobbying campaign that blocked every legislative attempt to restrict toxic flame retardants in California.
It’s the job of every investigative reporter to uncover what powerful interests want to hide. Here are a few quick tips to get you started on your own investigation.
Do some preliminary research.
Do enough research before diving into databases, public records requests, documents, and other resources to make sure you’re on the right track. Be prepared to switch gears if you find evidence that challenges your assumptions. I’d done enough research to confirm that an infusion of chemical industry cash was indeed at play. Then I started tracking who spent the money, who received it, how much was spent, and when.
Focus your investigation.
Though plenty of interesting tangents cropped up during my research, I reminded myself to stick to my central question: given mounting evidence that flame retardants pose a risk to health and the environment, why does the state of California still allow manufacturers to use them to meet its flammability standard when they don’t even work as advertised?
Look for patterns.
Tracking the flow of money around multiple bills and election cycles involving more than 100 legislators and close to 50 lobbyists, trade groups, and chemical companies generated a daunting amount of material.
It’s nearly impossible to show a quid pro quo, where the day before a key vote Senator Claghorn receives $3,000 from Acme Chemical Company and then votes to support his benefactor the next day. But you can look for patterns. I showed that money buys access to policymakers—in the form of private dinners, banquets, receptions, seminars, and other informal events—and revealed a pattern of giving that increased during critical periods when legislators considered and then killed five flame retardant bills.
Make sure you figure out who the major actors are before you collect your data. When you’re dealing with big datasets with hundreds of rows of donations per spreadsheet, the last thing you want to do is change your parameters midstream. Though it might be tempting to cast a wide net and include every company that’s ever produced flame retardants, it’s best to be conservative so you can defend your conclusions. Chevron and other petrochemical giants make flame retardants, but the chemicals represent just a fraction of their product line. Counting campaign contributions from all the petrochemical companies to 100-plus legislators added three-quarters of a million to the industry campaign. But Chevron didn’t list flame retardants on its lobbying disclosure forms, so I didn’t include the donations. It’s entirely plausible that an industry rep talked about flame retardants at a reception on, say, clean air. But activists’ claims that industry spent millions on lobbying to defeat the legislation was plausible too. You have to document it.
Investigative reporting is a powerful tool that relies on another trait found in any good journalist—skepticism. I don’t take what anyone, activist or politician, tells me at face value. There are no shortcuts. But when you finally have the facts nailed down to the point where you can show who’s benefiting and who’s not, that’s when you know you hit paydirt. And it’s time to set your curiosity loose on the next story.