What to do when officials clam up

What should investigative journalists do when public officials won’t talk — when we need to ask them big questions about facts we’ve uncovered after digging through public records or verifying a tip?

What should we do when our phone calls go unanswered? When emails stay unread, or ignored? When you finally get ahold of them, and they say, “No comment.”

At an Investigative Reports and Editors conference panel today on this issue, four journalists talked about how to get the story – even when we get nothing from the public officials whose salaries we pay.

It’s an issue we’ve dealt with here at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, and one that’s crucially important when you’re writing accountability stories.

Corey Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting said don’t back down. Push back. Think of it as a numbers game and talk to as many people as you can. Track down people who used to work in that office. Knock on doors and get home phone numbers. And start getting this into your head: “They must talk to us.”

“That’s right, you need to demand it,” Johnson said. “Even if they say they don’t have to, you have to demand it anyway. In order to be a great journalist, you have to have entitlement issues. Feel like you’re entitled to every single thing. They’re going to feel like you’re not.”

Johnson said when PIOs – journalist speak for the PR people at government agencies – don’t want to talk, “talk to the boss.”

Liz Navratil, a crime reporter for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, said the key is getting the story down pat and showing that you’re serious. For one story, reporters came in on a Saturday and called everybody they could think of to get an official comment. She said often in her career, sources she’s contacted are so impressed with her level of detail that they agree to talk.

And when you finally get an interview with the public official you need, be aware you might get “bull.”

But don’t worry, as Johnson said: “If they give me something, even if it’s bull, it’s bull I have in my notebook. I can begin to check with documents to try and establish if it’s true or not.”

Some other highlights from the panel:

On not becoming BFFs with public officials, or any source: “I don’t want to go to their parties… My friends have better parties… I think you can be nice and still be aggressive, you can be assertive and still be civil.” – Kathleen Johnston, a senior investigative producer at CNN.

On the problem with local, state and federal public records laws: “One of the reasons open records law doesn’t work is they have no teeth, it’s incredibly expensive to sue. It’s so cost-prohibitive that many of our organizations don’t want to sue, unless we start turning that around.” – Corey Johnson

On rebuilding relationships when you’ve soured sources: “I find a lot of journalists use and abuse sources. They’re good for this story, and then we just move on, because life moves on. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with texting, emailing, calling up a source, ‘Hey, ran across your number, how you’re doing?” – Kathleen Johnston.

On getting information from anonymous sources: “I’m not in Washington, I don’t live by those rules… You’re going to have to produce some documents to help me prove that. I’m not going to mislead. You’re not going to use my byline to mislead.” – Corey Johnson.

On going to jail to protect anonymous sources: “Corey Johnson vs. the NSA… Black man in jail. Let’s go with it baby. You’re going to put me up in the history of journalism.” – Corey Johnson

On the time when CNN used a third-party as a source for a story on Benghazi:

ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross: “You went on the air with information from a person you never talked to?”

Kathleen Johnston: “My correspondent went on air with information, including documentation, that we were able to verify, without talking directly to the primary, though I knew directly who the primary was, through an interested source. I’m not the only one doing this… Some of the biggest names in journalism, who’ve had to do this now. It’s a frightening thing, very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t do it. In a 30-year career, it’s the first time I had to do it. I hope it’s the last.”

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