In this post, Writers Write explores the value of a journalist’s research that gets your hands dirty instead of in cuffs.
Journalists and reporters, at least most of them, keep their hands clean and their nails trimmed. Journalism can ask you to get your hands dirty, and dig through sources and data for the good stuff. What’s legal, and what isn’t?
Here’s how journalists can be aware of the legal limitations around what they do.
Dirty Journalism: How Journalists Can Keep Research Legal
When Is Research Legal (Or Not)?
Journalism has rules, and countries have laws. Research should be legal, and you should be sure about it.
If you are unsure about something, look it up. Knowledge is your best weapon in a conflict or dispute, other than the first item to your left.
Don’t proceed through gray areas, and don’t be tempted to take an illegal shortcut. There’s almost always a legal way to verify something, or to find out something else.
Dirty Journalism: 7 Research Tips for Journalists
1. Archive Access
Archive access can give you a lot of information that hides below-the-surface of regular Google results.
Obscure, smaller newspapers (and large ones) all have archives to sift through: you literally never know the extent of what could be found about a topic or person.
The best thing about this is the legality: newspapers archives are a legal playground for research.
2. Public Records
Public records are gold for research, and they’re just as legal as archive access. What is determined to be ‘public record’ varies, but can include birth, death, or marriage records for a city or state.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published this international guide to what can be run as public records (and what can’t).
It’s not just for personal information, but a wishing well worth even more. Public records can include a charity’s financial information, or vital information about shares, shareholders, and value for a company.
Seek and you shall find.
3. Trash Digs
Journalist and editor Mariaan Thamm made 2019 news headlines for a story that required some dirty work: the veteran journalist made a dive for the trash to prove her point and tell the tale.
While she received a lot of flack for it, let’s remember this: it wasn’t illegal, and it still got the story.
Does this mean you should go dig through the trash at your source’s house?
Of course not, and hell no.
It means that – under some, legal circumstances – you can.
4. Leaked Information
‘Leaked’ information is anything that was taken outside of a confidential source, usually by a whistleblower. Always be careful here, because sometimes ‘leaked’ information is illegal or dangerous to overhear, to own, and especially to publish.
A source like this requires a team of journalists and legal professionals: alone, this is risky and very foolish.
Don’t let your common sense go for the smell of a good story.
Protect your source, and speak to a lawyer and editor immediately. Leaked information is like sitting on a volatile, unexploded bomb: get help, and don’t imagine you’ll sit on it for too long before you do.
While groups like Freedom Forum emphasise media freedom, this does not cover consequences, international law everywhere, or the potential risk associated with ‘leaked’ information.
5. One Party Consent (Or Not)
Recorded calls, conversations, and public encounters can be tricky. It depends, once more, on laws in the country you are writing (or sourcing) from. Smart(er) journalists learn the law.
One-party consent means that recording consent (that is, permission) is only required from one person. The opposite of this would be two-party consent, which means that two (or more) parties must give permission for a conversation to be on record.
Recording consent laws determine just how useful information could be, or just how far you can push recorded information for a story.
A tip-off is much like ‘leaked information’, but often only contains suspicion of something rather than concrete proof. Tip-offs are useful, but they should never be the whole story.
Journalists who receive a tip-off get a choice: refer somewhere else, or choose to investigate it yourself.
Apply the same rules given for leaked information if you choose the latter. Approach it with a seasoned editor, a lawyer, or both.
Treat a tip-off like a more dangerous rumor: seek expert help, and before you publish anything, make sure that it was true.
7. What Not To Do
If you have been a journalist for long enough, you will develop an intuitive feel for the things you can (or can’t) do: the difference between a statement and libel lawsuit is often the way you phrase it.
Clever investigative journalism asks two things:
Don’t cross the law, and; 2. Remember that some people don’t care about the first point.
If you get on the wrong side of the wrong people, you could put yourself and your sources in danger: whether what you said was legal or not.
Write carefully, or prepare a budget for legal fees and armed guards.
The Last Word
In this post, Writers Write explored legal versus illegal research for journalists. Explore some of our other great posts, and learn how to build your writing career further.
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:
- How Writers Can Research Settings Remotely
- The Use Of Real People As Characters In Fiction
- 8 Proofreading Tricks (That Save Valuable Time)
- 7 Techniques Of The Faustian Story
- Famous Rejection Letters & Their Lessons For Other Writers
- 8 Self-Published Books (That Went Big)
- The Art Of The Complaint Letter
- 6 Bits Of Writing Advice From Authors’ Letters
- The Art Of Writing Fiction With Fewer Settings
- 8 Statistics About The Writing Industry (You Should Know)