Tag Archives: Reporting tips
by Chris Roush
Luke Johnson, who runs a private equity firm, writes on Tuesday’s Financial Times about how those in his field should talk more to business journalists.
Johnson writes, “Journalists will very rarely simply push the angle you want. They often approach a business story from a sceptical view. Inevitably, they want the personal element in any article – they are probably more interested in your house, car and net worth than the products you are trying to promote.
“Every profile is a trade-off: information you are willing to share against coverage they are willing to devote to your business. Ultimately, the writer and their editor decide what goes in the piece. And never think you can manipulate a journalist to print your version of the truth: competent ones will cross-check the facts.
“Many captains of industry assume the press are their enemy. In fact the opposite can be the case. Sir Richard Branson has always assiduously courted journalists and his activities have, in my opinion, been reported in a friendly way as a consequence. Indeed, positive appearances in the media have been a vital way of building the Virgin brand.
“Often I am rung up because a journalist has heard a rumour about an acquisition we might be about to make. Usually I come out with a bland response such as, ‘We never comment on market rumours,’ whatever the truth of the suggestion. Occasionally, one feels obliged to offer more, for good or bad reasons. You can talk off the record or on an unattributable basis, and all respectable writers will honour that curious code. Inevitably, if you help a reporter they are more likely to give your side of events a sympathetic airing.”
Read more here.
In this five-part series, we’ll look at some of the challenges that young business journalists face in today’s media landscape. A common theme running through all five installments is the recognition that avoiding errors is a journalist’s first responsibility. News moves faster, farther and wider than ever before, and given the ever-increasing volatility of markets, the effect of incorrect news reporting can have shattering consequences: not just on the share price or business prospects of the company being written about, but on the media organization that faces legal liability and the exorbitant cost of legal defense. The third installment is about how the use of confidential sources – despite a shield law – may create liability for the reporter or publisher.
Few journalists – and more importantly, few thoughtful readers – can doubt the important role that confidential sources play in journalism. From Watergate more than 40 years ago to current revelations that the president of the United States may have lied to the public and press about the extent of National Security Agency spying on U.S. citizens, the law historically recognizes that confidential sources are crucial to the democratic function of a free press:
“Without an unfettered press, citizens would be far less able to make informed political, social, and economic choices. But the press’ function as a vital source of information is weakened whenever the ability of journalists to gather news is impaired. Compelling a reporter to disclose the identity of a source may significantly interfere with this news gathering ability; journalists frequently depend on informants to gather news, and confidentiality is often essential to establishing a relationship with an informant.” Zerilli v. Smith, 656 F. 2d 705 (DC Cir. 1981).
At present, congressional and Senate committees are working on passage of a federal shield law, which, if properly drafted, will allow journalists (including bloggers doing journalism) to refuse to disclose their sources in most federal cases. Many states already have some form of shield law, and for those of us who believe in the press’ role as public watchdog, that’s a good thing. But reporters and editors – as well as their lawyers – would do well to remember that even with a shield law in place, the use of confidential sources has to be subject to careful review and thoughtful consideration past any shield law. The failure to do so can have disastrous consequences for journalists and publishers.
“TRUST ME, I’M A JOURNALIST”
When a confidential source is utilized to publish a story that creates a defamatory assertion or implication, the fact that you may not have to disclose your source is only half the analysis. If you are sued for libel, and the plaintiff alleges clearly enough that you got it wrong, the burden shifts to you to show that either: a) the sued-upon fact isn’t wrong; or b) if it is wrong, you will need to convince a finder of fact that you had the appropriate basis for relying on a source.
Now ask yourself how the following would sound in court: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know I said Mr. Jones was a swindler. I have a source that told me so. I promised the source confidentiality, so I can’t tell you who it was. But trust me, I’m a journalist.” This is straight out of the Lionel Hutz playbook.
While it’s true that in varying degrees, journalists have a right to protect source confidentiality, the law recognizes that plaintiffs who allege damage to reputation also have rights. The notion of being able to face and question your accuser and his or her credibility is rooted in due process and fair play. This has led to the development of what some academics call “the no source presumption.” This means that in many cases, if a reporter facing a libel suit refuses to disclose his or her source, the jury is allowed to infer – or may be instructed by the judge – that the reporter never had a source at all.
This played out in a California courtroom in Dalitz v. Penthouse International, Ltd., 168 Cal. App. 3d 468 (Cal. App. 1985) where reporters Jeff Gerth and Lowell Bergman (the latter of “60 Minutes” fame) accused a handful of people of being “mobsters, gangsters and members of organized crime” and implicated the plaintiffs “in the Watergate scandal, nationwide bank failures, securities frauds totaling some $50 billion, criminal misuse of Teamster Pension Funds and other swindles of many kinds.”
The reporters refused to disclose their sources, and instead of holding the reporters in contempt (California has a shield law), the trial court instructed the jury to assume that there was no source for the sued-upon allegations other than those disclosed in the story itself. The appellate court upheld this presumption, noting that:
“Without the disclosure of these sources, we are left to believe merely on faith that the reporters in fact had confidential sources and did not simply embellish and expand upon the information contained in the voluminous mass of books, articles and newspaper clippings with which they have so copiously provided us.” Id.
THE “NO-SOURCE” PRESUMPTION EXPLAINED
Aside from judicial skepticism about reporters’ honesty, courts are sensitive to the notion of a person who alleges reputational harm being able to face one’s accuser. Moreover, in libel cases, the ability to question the state of mind of a reporter and to examine from whom and how they gathered their facts is a matter of due process for the plaintiff.
In DeRoburt v. Gannett Co., Inc., 507 F. Supp. 880 (D. Haw. 1981) a Guam-based newspaper accused the president of Nauru of having made improper loans and having inappropriate relationships with various political entities. The newspaper refused to disclose the identity of the confidential sources. The federal court addressed the inherent unfairness to the plaintiff saying:
“The media defendant cannot have it both ways: he cannot enjoy the protection afforded by the [The First Amendment] and at the same time enjoy a privilege that prevents the plaintiff from obtaining the evidence necessary to carry that burden. Were the media defendant allowed to have it both ways, he would have absolute license, and the libel plaintiff would have no recourse in the courts.” Id.
Instead of holding the reporters in contempt, the court used its discretion in applying the “no-source presumption” and held that:
“When a defendant in a libel action, brought by a plaintiff who is required to prove actual malice […] refuses to declare his sources of information upon a valid order of the court, there shall arise a presumption that the defendant had no source. This presumption may be removed by a disclosure of the sources a reasonable time before trial.” Id.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE: SOURCE PLUS INDEPENDENT REPORTING
This is not to say that a story relying on confidential sources can’t be defended without giving up the source, but it takes skillful and expensive lawyering, and more importantly, pulling this off will usually require convincing a judge that the reporter did not rely solely on whispers in the dark. In other words, a solid foundation of good reporting and fact checking can support this kind of story and keep the sources’ identity confidential.
This was the case in Trump v. O’Brien, 29 A. 3d 1090 (NJ App. Div. 2011), when Donald Trump sued New York Times journalist Tim O’Brien for allegedly underestimating Trump’s net worth in his book “TrumpNation.” Trump, suing in libel, sought disclosure of the identity of three confidential sources utilized by O’Brien, his notes regarding his interviews with those sources, and various other non-confidential materials relating to O’Brien’s research, writing and editorial processes. O’Brien refused to disclose the sources, and the appellate court found that both New York and New Jersey’s shield laws applied and that O’Brien had no duty to disclose the sources.
Trump argued that this was unfair, and that O’Brien’s relying on sources that Trump couldn’t cross-examine ought to be evidence of the knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth (“actual malice”) that public figures are required to prove. The court instead looked at the totality of the reporting, and found that the passages in question were not solely the product of repeating defamatory statements from unnamed people.
The court took notice of the fact that O’Brien did not merely take the anonymous sources at their word but in fact the re-interviewed his confidential sources prior to publishing their net worth estimates. O’Brien also showed the court notes of his meetings which the court found significant, because all three interviews showed “remarkably similar estimates of Trump’s net worth, thereby suggesting the accuracy of the information conveyed.” Id.
According to the court, O’Brien made efforts to verify independently the information gleaned from his sources, and he did not adopt the low estimates of net worth set forth by his anonymous sources as fact. Instead, the court held, O’Brien utilized their lower figures as an illustration of the spread in estimates of Trump’s wealth, while suggesting that, in his own view, Trump’s net worth was far less than he claimed it to be. As a result, the case was dismissed, the court holding that: “[There was no] evidence to support Trump’s conclusion that the confidential sources utilized by O’Brien were fictitious, and no evidence to suggest that O’Brien’s reliance on the confidential sources suggested actual malice on O’Brien’s part.”
In short, careful and skeptical use of confidential sources, backstopped by independent fact checking and analysis may convince a court that your story, although derived from confidential sources, did not blindly adopt their statements as fact. That way, the confidential sources are not so central to the plaintiff’s case that the protections of the shield law should be surmounted by a sense of fairness due the plaintiff.
CHECKLIST FOR CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES AND THE SHIELD LAW
• Is your confidential source making a statement upon which you may be sued? If it is a potentially defamatory allegation, you should consult your newsroom lawyer prior to publication.
• Have you exhausted efforts to independently verify the information that your source gave you? Consider going back to your source and asking if there is any help they can provide.
• Remember that even if your state does have a shield law, they may not be applied in federal court. Don’t be overly emboldened by the shield law: ask yourself “if I have to prove my story in court without giving up my source, am I able to do so?”
• The promise of confidentiality is often considered a binding contract, and sources who are burned have the right to sue a publisher or reporter for financial compensation for lost wages, business opportunities and other expenses. The only way to avoid this possibility is to obtain a written waiver from the source allowing you to name him or her in the event you are sued.
• Never sign an agreement offering to provide your source legal defense in the event they are sued for talking to you. Courts have held this to be evidence of an improper motive on the sources’ part and a form of journalists paying people to say defamatory things. Consult a newsroom lawyer before having any conversations with sources in this regard.
Charles J. Glasser, Jr. spent the last 12 years as Global Media Counsel to Bloomberg News, responsible for litigation, ethical newsroom issues and pre-publication review, and was responsible for handling the work of more than 2,100 journalists on a 24-hour basis. Prior to joining Bloomberg, he represented a wide variety of news organizations including The New York Post, Readers’ Digest and NBC News. Prior to becoming an attorney, he was a journalist for 16 years. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook” and is currently a consultant on media law and corporate communications issues, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Chris Roush
Northwest Florida Daily News business editor Dusty Ricketts has a plea to the companies in his area: Let me come work for you.
Ricketts writes, “Thankfully, I haven’t been fired as the business editor of the Daily News, but I am starting a new series that will run monthly in the business section.
“Other than a short stint of working on Destin Harbor scheduling fishing trips for some of the charter boats and a disastrous attempt at trying to sell lawn care over the telephone, my entire professional career has been spent in the newsroom of one newspaper or another.
“It’s time to change that, at least a little.
“This is my pitch to the business owners and managers in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties to put me to work.
“Let me come in and work a half day or full day for you. After it’s over, we talk about things like how I did and if I am hirable, and then I could come back to the comfort of my newsroom and write about the experience.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
On Friday, BlackBerry shares jumped 9 percent after Reuters reported exclusively that the company was considering going private. Nadia Damouni, Reuters corporate board correspondent, offers an inside look at the reporting behind the scoop.
Q. How did you get this exclusive?
A. BlackBerry, formerly known as Research In Motion, has been a company that I have covered and followed for years — from the time I first alerted the world that Amazon had approached the device maker in 2011, earmarking the first signs that parties were making takeover overtures, to last week’s story that the board was open to a leverage buyout. Realizing that the company had a dire recent quarter made me increase efforts in reaching out to all my sources — ranging from corporate strategy heads, board members, private equity firms, investment bankers, lawyers and investor contacts. One of the most important components of getting a full and accurate picture was bringing in the beat reporter, in this case Euan Rocha and my private equity counterpart Greg Roumeliotis.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. These types of stories do not fall into your lap. It requires a huge amount of networking and building up trust among sources. That means going out, meeting with people face to face and being smart about sharing tips that you have garnered. One source can give you a nugget, and from there on it is up to you to put pieces of the puzzle together. In this case we spoke to a wide variety of sources from private equity to corporate strategy and board sources to deal makers.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
The International Center for Journalists is offering an eight-week, online course for Spanish-speaking and English-speaking journalists working within the United States on how to find business and economics stories in data and using databases to find such stories.
A new and growing body of expertise and digital tools – data journalism – can help business and financial journalists better serve these audiences. In the McGraw-Hill Data Journalism Program, ICFJ will help journalists master this new set of tools and produce data-driven stories that raise financial literacy in underserved communities.
The program will give journalists reporting for minority and other underserved populations a variety of data journalism tools and techniques, including how to mine economic and financial databases. During training on ICFJ’s digital training platform journalists can take a course on finding, interpreting, visualizing, and reporting on this data.
The online courses will take place from Oct. 7, 2013 through Dec. 1, 2013. All applicants will be asked to propose a project that they will develop throughout the length of the course. A mentoring period to help participants finalize their projects will then take place from Dec. 2, 2013 until Jan. 26, 2014.
The English course will be led by UNC-Chapel Hill business journalism professor Chris Roush, and the Spanish course will be led by personal finance journalist Xavier Serbia.
by Chris Roush
Reuters reported exclusively Monday that American Airlines and US Airways will win EU approval for their $11 billion merger, creating the world’s largest carrier. The report, by senior competition correspondent Foo Yun Chee, was widely cited in the press and American Airlines shares jumped 1.75 percent following the scoop.
In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Yun Chee offers an inside look at how she scored the exclusive news.
Here is an excerpt:
Q. How did you get this exclusive?
A. I monitor numerous mergers even before they reach the stage where they have to apply for antitrust approval because this helps me to understand what possible competition hurdles are ahead for the companies. When I read that the carriers were likely to face tough scrutiny from U.S. antitrust regulators, I sounded out my sources in Brussels for a read-through of the situation for the companies in Europe. Understanding the key issues right from the start was crucial as it demonstrated to my sources that I knew what was going on and ultimately helped me land the scoop.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. I read the companies’ reports, other media stories and analyst notes. I also talked to various people involved in the case to build up a picture of how the antitrust process would develop and conclude.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
The Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico is launching a new feature called “Scam of the Week” aimed at helping readers guard against fraud, identity theft and other unsavory business practices.
“And depending on the type of scam, readers will be directed to contact the appropriate state or federal agencies, such as the Consumer Protection Division of the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General or the Federal Trade Commission.
“Readers also will be encouraged to contact the Journal directly if they hear about or become the target of what they feel to be a bogus business offer. At that point, we’ll do our best to check it out and report back on its legitimacy. So watch for ‘Scam of the Week,’ starting Sunday in the Money section.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Journalism.co.uk’s Sarah Marshall spoke to Neal Mann, multimedia innovations editor at The Wall Street Journal, and Jarrard Cole, a multimedia producer, about why they decided to take a unique approach in interactive storytelling.
Their latest video allows users to click and explore different aspects of the story, such as related graphics, articles and videos.
Marshall writes, “Mann’s view is that ‘traditional TV-style methods’ do not always act as good explainers.
“He therefore started to think about doing the piece from a first-person perspective ‘and using interactivity as a way to allow the reader to engage further and get more background.’
“One of the big challenges for Mann, Cole and the reporters involved was to distill the story and explain the key facts and to point people to where they could find out more. The multilayered approach to storytelling allowed them to do this.
“‘The interactivity adds another layer,’ Mann said. ‘And that was really quite exciting because in news, and particularly in news video, we are normally condensing incredibly complex issues into very short periods of time. What interactivity allows us to do is to really expand on that and allow the viewer to expand on areas where they may need some extra background detail.’”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
The proportion of business and financial journalists sourcing stories through social media has leapt in the past year, according to research from Broadgate Mainland.
Alec Mattinson of PRWeek writes, “Broadgate Mainland’s 2013 Digital Trends Survey found twice as many journalists now use digital means, such as Twitter or LinkedIn, to find story ideas or news tip-offs.
“More than 80 percent of the journalists quizzed for the study said they had sourced stories on social media in the past year, with 22 percent saying that they sourced content via digital means on a daily basis.
“Nearly half (45 percent) of journalists said they would be happy to receive corporate news via Twitter, though email remains the preferred channel for being contacted by PR professionals (87 percent).
“The survey, conducted in May and June this year, researched the views of both financial services journalists and in-house PR professionals.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Mandy Locke was born and reared in Shelbyville, Tenn., where she started her journalism career as a high school student covering the Tennessee walking horse industry.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, she worked at the Vineyard Gazette in Edgartown, Mass., before joining The (Raleigh) News & Observer in 2004 to report on the criminal justice system. She has won numerous North Carolina Press Association awards for breaking news and investigations.
On Tuesday, Locke and her News & Observer colleague David Raynor won a national Gerald Loeb Award for their three-part series “Ghost Workers.” Loeb Awards are the highest award to receive in business journalism.
Lock and Raynor revealed the competitive trick many contractors in North Carolina have used to win bids: they cheat. The series details the ways in which worker misclassification and other tax and labor law violations hurt not only construction workers but contractors and the state itself. Sadly, lax enforcement and poor inter-agency communication has allowed the cheaters to win, and has threatened the future of contractors who do play by the rules.
In part one of the series, “Cheating Businesses Make It Tough for Honest Employers,” Locke tells the story of an honest contractor who is losing business because he won’t cheat. Part two, “Injured Worker Pays for Employer’s Gamble,” profiles Clemente Hernandez Gonzalez, who was paralyzed in an accident at work but must now fight for just compensation because his employer misclassified him as an independent contractor. In the final third part of the series, “Inept Bureaucracy Lets Dishonest Businesses Win,” Locke and Raynor report that segmented information and bureaucratic “silos” have helped create a bidding environment in which cheaters win.
Locke spoke Thursday with Talking Biz News about the series and how it was reported and written. What follows is an edited transcript.
My work on these issues began earlier in 2012 and quite innocently. I was writing a story for Sunshine Week about the trend of private companies using the public records law to get information from government. One of the companies I learned about had been wrestling with the state Industrial Commission to get its database of companies and their workers’ comp policies. I wondered why, so I called the company’s owner. His business model wasn’t particularly interesting or relevant to my reporting, but he told me that he thought North Carolina had a big problem. He couldn’t account for as many policies as there should be based on the number of companies in our state requires to carry insurance.
I decided to take a look myself. We got a copy of the database, and Raynor worked hard to clean it and account for individual policies. Then, we used some simple math. There should have been at least 170,000 companies carrying it. The database revealed only 140,000. I double checked with the Rate Bureau (which collects the data) to make sure our count was accurate.
The problem of uninsured employers had plagued the Industrial Commission for years, though little had been done to stop it. I talked to current and former employees of the commission and searched their database of cases to find some compelling examples. It was a problem in plain sight.
We had a pretty good run of stories about this issue in April and May. State leaders promised reform, and the IC woke up.
During this collection of stories, I started to hear from all sorts of business people about all sorts of problems. I heard from Doug Burton, a masonry company owner. (He was highlighted in day one of the series). He was the first person to mention to me the problem of misclassification, though I’d seen the issue of subcontractors arise in some of the workers comp cases I had studied. The more I learned, the more I realized this was an important story.
I also heard from other employers who told me about the scheme of ghost policies. I got busy searching the database for a good case to explore and found the Worrell/ Gonzalez case.
I convinced Mr. Burton to let me use his business struggles to tell readers about the problem of misclassification. He eventually agreed and opened up his business records and schooled me on the masonry business.
Where did you begin your reporting?
As I mentioned above, my first entree was Doug Burton. I studied his business and spent quite a bit of time with him in those early days. I read all I could about the problem and what other states were doing to tackle it. I spoke with an expert at SAS. I knew very little about payroll taxes and profit margins in the construction industry, so my early weeks were spent talking to as many people as I could who could educate me.
How did you find contractors willing to talk on the record?
My main characters like Burton came to me because of my workers’ compensation stories. A few others, like the Baker brothers, had written a letter to the editor after some of my stories. The others I found by scouring workers compensation cases. For as many as were willing to speak openly and freely with me, many, many more weren’t. Business people like to guard their personal details, and I needed complete disclosure.
You used a lot of paystubs and other paper documents that aren’t public record. How did you get those?
After we decided to focus on masonry to explain the scheme of misclassification, sources directed me to Martin’s Bricklaying, a big player whom they had heard was misclassifying workers. Another source introduced me to a former employee of Martin’s, and that worker became my ambassador to other bricklayers. He shared pay stubs he had from time working with Martin’s and contacted old coworkers to do the same.
Because of their immigration status, some were too scared to speak, but they were willing to share paperwork through my ambassador. Also, Martin’s bricklaying had a pending workers compensation claim from a former employee. While none of those records were at a public stage at the Industrial Commission, I convinced the employee’s lawyer to share paystubs from that worker. In short, I had to navigate a network of undocumented workers, quickly earn their trust and convince them of the value of my story. Some days were particularly challenging, and I had the weight of trying to ensure I wasn’t endangering them by using them as subjects.
Some contractors were not willing to talk to you. What steps did you take to try to get them on the record?
I worked really hard to try to get the owner of Martin’s Bricklaying, and I started early in the process. I called him multiple times, and spoke to his wife two of those times. She assured me she would share a message. I got his cell phone number and left messages there. I went to his home, and while he wasn’t there, I left a message with a relative. I went to worksites where I was told I might find him.
Finally, I sent a registered letter explaining to him what I wanted to talk with him about and what the stories would say. I had the great benefit of hearing about his business in his own words from his application to become a Historically Underutilized Business with the state. I’m confident he knew I wanted to speak to him and that he had every opportunity to connect with me.
The only other contractor I can recall that I wasn’t able to capture was one of the masonry contractors who often hired Martin’s. I left multiple phone messages with his assistant on his cell and home phones over a course of weeks. She assured me he’d received the messages and would call if he liked. I also emailed both him and his son, I seem to recall.
How long did the reporting take? And then the writing and editing?
I spent most of April writing and reporting exclusively about workers’ compensation problems. In May, I started to explore these other issues. June and July were devoted to more reporting and juggling a few other unrelated stories. I spent four days writing the stories. Steve Riley and I took a week to edit, then it was off to copy editors and designers who worked for another week, while Steve and I did massive fact checking and polishing. The stories ran mid-August.
How did you use state databases to improve the storyline?
The database of employers and workers comp policies was critical to both the April stories as well as our August series. In August, we used the database to illustrate missed opportunities with state officials who do health and safety inspections for businesses. We compared OSHA records with the database to show how many possible opportunities there may have been to detect employers without insurance. I simply wanted to illustrate lost opportunities for how agencies could work together to find cheating businesses.
Also, the IC has a searchable database of opinions rendered in contested workers’ compensation cases. I found a great many uninsured cases there once I figured out some key words to use in searches.
Has anything been done about the “ghost policies”?
The governor appointed a task force after our series to explore all of these issues. That group recommended ghost policies be eliminated. That effort, though, hasn’t been spearheaded at the legislature.
What was the most surprising thing you found out in your reporting?
I was surprised at how blatantly some employers broke the laws and how easily they avoided detection. I think we all expect some of this would happen in the free market, but even with government funded projects with a fairly high level of scrutiny, this still occurred.
How did you and David work together in putting the series together?
David was a huge support in analyzing and cleaning the databases we studied. The insurance policy database was pretty dirty, so he worked hard to make sure we were making sound conclusions.
Some news researchers at the paper also contributed. What did they do?
News researchers offered help in trying to find alternate contacts (phone, email) for some of the people I needed to track down.