Sometimes when I contact someone to get background information on something I’m researching, they’ll say something like, “Please tell me this isn’t for an article about me.” I can’t tell if they’re joking or not, but it’s happened often enough that I wanted to clear up a few things about how I work. I’ve tacked on some answers to a lot of questions I get asked on as well.
I’m always poking around and asking questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’m researching a story or want to write about the thing I’m inquiring about. My questions could be contextual, or just filling my knowledge bank.
If I am trying to investigate something, I will always contact someone accused of wrongdoing to ask them to respond to allegations. I will not do this in a sneaky or surreptitious way–I’m not going to ask friends questions during personal discussions and then sneakily write things up–but rather in an official email with a subject line that says something like “media inquiry: response to allegations,” and/or a phone call.
Allowing people to respond to allegations cuts both ways: it also means that if you make an accusation of someone, I will always need to reach out to that person or company for comment if I write about them. There are a lot of situations in which this might be unacceptable to a source, in which case I may not be the best reporter for the job, because this isn’t something I’ll budge on.
In general, if I want to quote someone on a topic, I’ll make it very clear that this is what I’m doing (and there’s a chance to say no or refer me to someone else). I may decide someone is a good potential source on a subject based on casual conversations, but that’s about it.
Quoting From Listservs or Emails
I do not quote from personal emails without people’s consent. It’s extremely unlikely that I’d quote directly from a public listserv or discussion without reaching out to the author of the comments for clarification and permission, unless it is a public statement. I have sometimes linked to Github bug report responses, though.
Public Figures vs. Everyone Else
I believe that public figures have less of a right to control information about themselves than private people do, and make reporting decisions based on this belief.
Off the Record vs. On Background
Many times when people say they’d like to discuss a topic off the record, they really mean on background, but balk when I make that suggestion. To clear things up, let’s go over some definitions.
On the record information means it can be used in a story which quotes the source by name.
Off the record means the discussion didn’t happen; the information can’t be used for publication. If it’s off the record, I can’t even discuss it with an editor who asks me if I reached out to someone to say “yes, they said X is happening but didn’t want to be quoted.”
On background typically means information can be published, but without the name of the source; for example, “a company spokesperson said XXX.” It can also be used to share, uh, background information without any type of quote.
There are, of course, a myriad of ways one can be attributed/identified or not, which are typically reserved for victims of crimes or other sensitive situations. It is, in my opinion, unethical to ask a source to go on the record when there are reasons doing so would put them at risk. I will, however, sometimes ask someone who asks for off the record if they actually mean on background, if it seems that way to me.
Interview Recordings and Logistics
I typically conduct interviews in person or by phone. If it is a phone interview, I will ask permission to record the call. I record it using Voice Memos if in person or on a web app like Skype. I will use an app called TapeACall to record phone interviews.TapeACall says that it stores recordings on its server for one year. Depending on the length of the call, my budget, and the deadline, I will sometimes send calls to third parties for transcription. Recording and possibly transcribing an interview, of course, means that a third party or perhaps more than one third party has access to the call.
Sometimes sources will decide that specific information on a call is off the record after they’ve said it. This has happened to me on Skype and Google Hangouts and other mediums, in which information is already accessible by third parties. I will transcribe entire calls that have even one off the record sentence in them to minimize exposure, but in general I’d recommend not discussing off the record information on a phone call that’s being recorded by a third party app. This is particularly true if you are, for example, a human rights worker living in a country in which Skype is monitored.
When Will The Post Be Up?!?!
The short answer is, “I don’t know.” Also, not everybody I interview gets quoted in a draft, and not everyone’s quotes in a draft make it to the final piece. And sadly, not all of my finished pieces go live. Sometimes they get stuck in purgatory.
Depending on policies of the publication I write for and on how tight my deadline is, I can sometimes allow sources to review their own quotes. I do not show sources the entire article in advance, but can sometimes discuss specifics for clarification. For a thorough explanation on why journalists don’t share entire posts or articles in advance, and to understand some other options, see Steve Buttry’s post on this very topic.
Sometimes I get angry emails ringing the alarm bells because a reader feels the post was inaccurate. If there are legitimate factual errors, I do my best to correct them, though it is of course at my editors’ discretion. I will typically discuss any issues that arise with my editor, with a few exceptions. Some purported inaccuracies are simply a difference of opinion. Sometimes I summarize reports and the readers disagree with the actual research cited or source I quoted, which isn’t always a factual error. And sometimes information is omitted for deliberate reasons, such as reader interest or the target audience. There are also times in which information I receive in an email or a comment (yes, I do typically read them) gives me a broader view of an issue and may guide future work, but I don’t feel that the original post needs a correction.
Correction vs updates
If I reach out to a source for comment and they do not do so, but then contact me after the post goes live, I will add the comments into the piece, but this is typically an update, and not a correction. Corrections are reserved for factually inaccurate information, not for sources responding to request for comment after a piece has already been published.
Conflicts of Interest
I always disclose conflicts of interest, but sometimes they are ridiculous, like when I had a cup of coffee with someone three years ago and can’t remember whether or not they paid.
These days, there’s been a bit of blurring between journalistic endeavors and PR, with brands often owning websites and publications. (For example, I edit a fitness journal owned by a gym and have written for a website owned by an accelerator.) I have edited for a pet brand and edit for a lifestyle brand, and done a bit of content marketing (read: blogging) for brands covering content marketing (so meta). Where I draw the line is in writing sponsored content on technology and other topics I cover editorially. If I were to reach out to interview someone for sponsored content (which typically does not happen since the interviewees are pre-selected and before a writer comes on the scene), I would always disclose this upfront.
Stuff I have very little control over
Headlines. Stripped links. And some edits, though I do my very best to only write for publications that will allow me to see edits before they go live so we can have a discussion, if needed, about changes made.
I like to think I’m open to constructive feedback, but I am sometimes mercurial about blocking people on Twitter and do delete racist or even just annoying comments on Facebook. Now you know up front. I also moderate comments on this blog, which I have to approve before they are posted. I did this in response to abusive comments and because I don’t want to keep blocking Tor users. Oh, and speaking of Tor, as of right now, IP addresses are tracked for comments.
There are a lot of different ways to contact me, listed below.
Phone Number: +1-715-456-4273
PGP Fingerprint: 6E72 C713 979F 9EEA EFB8 A40B 5E34 C751 4A11 536A
OTR Fingerprint: 7D8A1972 94324731 C22D50EA 71AC732F 88BAD4DD
Jitsi: Upon request
Pond: Contact me to set up a secret to exchange.
Signal/TextSecure fingerprint: 05 6d 1b 54 20 6f bd c9 75 27 a9 68 89 bb 2c 1f 60 3a b9 9c 9b 99 fe ce f9 2c f1 93 9a 91 8a 04 30.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/yaelwrites, https://www.facebook.com/yaelgrauerwrites
If you are planning on disclosing tips or leads for investigative reporting projects I’m working on and believe that you may be at risk if the information is somehow traced back to you, I encourage you to consider the implications before doing so.
I will challenge any subpoenas or attempts by either government agencies or private sector organizations to gain access to any information I obtain, and will attempt to provide notice (unless legally prohibited from doing so) if legally required to disclose information, in order to give you an opportunity to object to the disclosure.
However, please be aware that there are numerous ways to trace individuals to social media and email accounts (even pseudonymous ones), that secure messaging tools typically allow any user to see who else in their phone’s contact list has downloaded the tool, and that even encrypted communications typically leak metadata (e.g. who you emailed, when, and with what subject line…or who you called, when, and how long you spoke).
For more information on secure, private communications, and on threat modeling, please seeAccess Tech and Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense Project. I have listed ways to contact me with a variety of tools (OnionShare, Signal/RedPhone/TextSecure, Jitsi, PGP, Pond, etc.) depending on what makes sense for your situation).
I hope to add more tutorials about these tools in the future.