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March 10, 2020, 2:28 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Sarah Scire   |   March 10, 2020

Want to know what tax breaks and other incentives your government offered to one of the world’s most valuable companies? Hoping to dig into records about police misconduct? Want to report on test scores or senior housing or lead levels in your city’s drinking water?

It would help to consult a lawyer.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press released a report today that summarized the biggest legal challenges that newsrooms face and how additional legal support would help them pursue more investigative journalism.

The report found that journalists are being stymied by “a culture of secrecy that is pervasive in local and state governments” while reporting on a wide range of topics.

Though governments hiding documents from the public is nothing particularly new, the precarious position that many local news outlets find themselves in means the resources needed to fight back can be harder to come by. Because funding for affirmative legal cases are among the first to be cut from struggling newsrooms, reporters are increasingly confronting issues like being shut out of public meetings and court proceedings or denied access to government reports and records without guidance or legal advice.

Citing recent newsroom mergers and layoffs, a proposal from Massachusetts said community news organizations in the state are “now covering larger areas with fewer resources and are facing more barriers and costs to obtain public records.”

In Oregon, “even the state’s most dogged reporters won’t pursue certain stories because they know getting necessary records will be too time-consuming or expensive to justify,” another proposal said. “Agencies understand this dynamic and exploit it.”

One applicant said that having an “attorney to fight against wholesale records denials would be a godsend locally and statewide.”

These types of access issues were the most frequently-cited legal problems, but the committee also heard that legal assistance would be helpful for pre-publication legal review and defensive support.

One in five of the responding newsrooms noted that consulting a lawyer before publication would make them feel “more confident pursuing investigative reporting” and other sensitive stories, especially if they were also on hand to provide defensive support to address lawsuits threats, libel complaints, or subpoenas.

“An attorney will know where the minefields are when reporting on sensitive topics,” one applicant from Wisconsin wrote. Another applicant, from West Virginia, told the committee that the lack of legal resources has “a tremendous chilling effect” on enterprise and investigative reporting.

Trainings and media law workshops could help too, the committee noted. (Journalism school often leaves graduates unprepared to face legal issues, research has indicated.) One proposal suggested that an attorney could lead regional workshops to teach members of the press and the public about their rights and responsibilities:

“Such training and evangelizing could embolden small or startup news organizations to undertake more ambitious and possibly litigious projects,” the applicant wrote. “It could empower ordinary citizens to gain access to and knowledge about institutions in their communities, an antidote to the alienation all too many Americans currently feel.”

Some newsrooms are already joining forces to tackle public records requests. In California, for example, news outlets banded together to evaluate records on police misconduct and North Carolina papers, once competitors, partnered up. Journalists and watchdogs also swap tips on public records and FOIA requests online and some free resources are available from organizations like MuckRock and others.

Still, the report found that many local journalists and newsrooms could use additional legal help. The full report includes quotes representing 45 news organizations in 30 states around the country:

As an applicant from Ohio put it, “Only when journalists pose a credible threat of litigation do public officials begin to obey the law.”

In Tennessee, an applicant noted that additional legal support would help journalists there fight for access to internal investigations into schools and their employees. “We could take a deeper look at issues such as how qualified teachers are in under-served communities and other disparities that we suspect exist but can’t get access to the records to prove it.”

“All news organizations have faced intense pressure in recent years because of a profound cultural shift surrounding alleged ‘fake news,’” one applicant from California told the Reporters Committee. “We need resources to push back and educate our sources, particularly in local government, about the public’s rights under the First Amendment.”

Though the proposals the Reporters Committee received “reflect a widespread need for legal support for local journalism in states and communities across the country,” they will fund legal support for local enterprise and investigative reporting in just five jurisdictions through their Local Legal Initiative. With funding provided by the Knight Foundation, a Reporters Committee attorney will be designated in Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee this year. For newsrooms left off the list, Nieman Lab friend Christine Schmidt noted there’s a related funding opportunity through the Local News Lab with a deadline in early April.

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