Access denied? Look for other, sometimes less traditional, ways to find sources #FOIAFriday #AHCJ16

HHS-press-conferenceA Freedom of Information request that takes weeks, if not months, to receive.

Repeatedly getting “No comment” from anyone you speak to.

Encountering a spokesperson who has no interest in building a relationship but, instead, serves as a barrier.

These issues – and how to address them – were discussed at the “Access Denied: How to get the story anyway” panel Thursday at Health Journalism 2016.

Veteran journalists shared how to best navigate the many challenges that journalists face.

Kay Lazar, a health reporter at The Boston Globe, explained how she completed an investigative story about a company that quickly bought 11 nursing homes in Massachusetts.

Lazar had been writing about nursing homes but hadn’t heard of the company because they essentially “came out of nowhere,” she said.

She got a press release from the company, claiming they were going to reinvent nursing homes, making them more like hotels and concierges.

Lazar made some calls to leaders in the nursing home industry who told her they were concerned about the quality of the care that the company delivered. Lazar needed to build sources, so first, she wrote smaller, quieter stories.

“You have to chip away at things,” Lazar said. “You have to do a lot of stories in between, but saving string by doing smaller stories, by doing just a story on health problems at one of their nursing homes – that very first story prompted a lot of phone calls from workers who were saying, ‘You can’t believe it – it’s much worse than you ever imagined.’”

To get records, Lazar cultivated relationships at the regional office of Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which helped her get records that the state health department lagged to deliver. Lazar also combed through court files and land deeds to find years of information.

Fred Schulte, a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, discussed what journalists should do when a Freedom of Information Act request proves useless.

Schulte recommended going to a place where records cannot hide: the courthouse.

Additionally, Schulte stressed the importance of using PACER for finding background on a company. PACER is a website that provides access to U.S. appellate, district, and bankruptcy court records and documents. Schulte said the service can be expensive to use, especially for freelancers, but a journalist can find great information in court cases among health care companies.

Schulte also recommended that journalists file FOIA requests, even if they know they won’t get them.

“The key to doing good reporting is to never go away – never go away,” Schulte said. “Let them know you’re not going to go away. Keep bugging them until they give you the damn records.”

Independent journalist Madeline Vann offered the perspective of a former spokesperson. Vann worked in communications with the Louisiana Office of Public Health and with Tulane University Health Science Center in New Orleans.

Vann addressed common journalist frustrations, like “Why do I have to call the PR office first? Why can’t I just call the expert?”

For one, it is likely an institutions policy, and secondly, it helps the public relations office manage all of the media calls that the institution receives.

Vann said that the CDC estimates it receives 120 to 160 calls per week, especially after releasing its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Additionally, an institution’s experts might have a media bias, and a spokesperson can help them understand that they should talk to other media outlets outside of the larger outlets, such as The New York Times, Vann said.

Also, if a media office is overwhelmed with requests, they might recommend a journalist look on their website for the information.

However, if a journalist reframes their question, they might get access to an expert, Vann said. Also, public health experts often don’t have a primary goal of talking to the media – but they do want to educate and help the public.

“If you can make the case that this interview or this story is going to facilitate what is ultimately the goal of their work, I think you’re going to be able to find a little way into that foot in the door,” Vann said.

Concern was also raised for the increasing use of “off the record” in seemingly flippant scenarios. For example, a spokesperson at a federal agency might begin an email with “This is off the record,” even when the information they’re providing isn’t controversial.

Moderator Irene Wielawski, an independent journalist with 40 years of experience and chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, said she has always viewed off-the-record conversations as a two-way street.

Wielawski said she does not grant it to anyone she doesn’t know well, and she doesn’t listen to anyone she doesn’t know well promising her “off the record.” It should not be used casually by journalists or sources.

“It’s core value is based on a relationship of trust,” Wielawski said. “Off the record doesn’t work very well when you are calling somebody up on the phone, you’re even not face to face, and this is the first time you have ever talked to each other – it’s junk.”


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