Lessons In Investigative Blogging

This was originally published at cbdc (my personal site) February 5, 2006. Several of the included hyperlinks are now 404 but I am leaving them in place.

In my attempt to build a network of bloggers in Shiawassee, I have found myself giving advice to many people. What I’ve discovered in doing so is that I’ve actually learned quite a bit in my short time as an investigative blogger. Although I’m not one to blog about blogging, I’d like to share five lessons I’ve learned from my experience:

Lesson #1: Not everyone will take you seriously – Even a professional journalist can find it difficult to get an interview, and it’s even more difficult for a blogger who is just getting started. If you go after someone who doesn’t take your work seriously, something as simple as a return email can be hard to come by. A return phone call is out of the picture. You will lose some interviews because you’re a blogger, and not a reporter with a major publication. There’s no glory in talking to you, and no serious PR danger in not talking.

I’ve had mixed success with my article sources. For example, the people of one particular public department have fully resisted my attempts to talk to them. All of my efforts — two emails, two phone calls, and friends asking friends to help me out – were met with silence. I didn’t even get a “no comment.” I am not dropping that series of articles, but I have had to seek alternate sources of information and it has delayed the publication. By contrast, I had no trouble getting people to talk about the protest at the MSU / Penn State basketball game. Every source was eager to help, and their involvement definitely had an impact on the quality of the article.
Do not be surprised if the same people who refuse to take your work seriously eventually complain about the work you produce. This is probably not much different from what traditional journalists face every day. Regarding one of my articles, I was accused of assuming that certain information is true, without talking to one of the people mentioned in the article. It is true that I didn’t talk to that person, but it’s also true that she didn’t return the call that I made to her office. It’s true that I believe certain information to be true, but it’s also true that I used multiple independent sources to get that information.

As a result of my experiences, I’ve changed my approach to requesting interviews. I identify myself and my website more clearly, and if applicable, make it clear that the article will run with or without the subject’s participation. In the published article I indicate that the subject either declined to comment or could not be reached. I have also published my blogging policies, so that it is clear that I take my blogging seriously, even if others do not.

Lesson #2: FOIA is your friend - The Freedom of Information Act, which exists in both state and federal form, is a very helpful but underused tool by bloggers. I have used FOIA requests in the past to get a copy of the Shiawassee budget and I have a few FOIA requests out for another series of articles.

The official Michigan FOIA site provides information about the intent and enforcement of the law. The Michigan Freedom of Information Committee is another good resource if you have any questions, and Attorney Martha Churchill has a website which has been incredibly helpful to me in constructing FOIA letters.

When submitting a FOIA request for documents, keep in mind that the expenses can add up. For example, Shiawassee charges $.31 per page for copies, which can make a copy of the complete county budget quite expensive. When you purchase copies, immediately check that all of the pages are there. You might ask for a complete copy of a document and find that certain pages are missing. Getting a FOIA request approved isn’t the same thing as having it honored.

If you do not want to purchase copies, your FOIA request should ask for a time and date when you can view the original documents. There is a benefit to viewing original documents rather than purchasing copies. When you view original documents, you often have access to information that you do not get in a reproduction. No one is going to copy a post-it note for you. No one is going to copy notes written inside a file folder.

Lesson #3: Bloggers are in limbo – If there’s one thing you cannot be sure of, it’s your legal status as a blogger. There is no standard legal recognition of bloggers as journalists.
The greatest challenge to getting bloggers recognized as journalists is that the definition of ‘blogger’ is ‘a person who blogs’. Anyone can start a blog at no cost in a matter of minutes. There are no particular qualifications required to set up your own blog and start writing. In contrast, traditional journalists have invested years in training and they adhere to a recognized standard of conduct and ethics. Why should a blogger and a journalist be afforded the same status and legal protections?

That is a valid question, and my answer is that there is a legitimate need for citizen journalism. Large mainstream media is consolidated into the hands of a few power players. State and local media is often biased in favor of or opposed to the status quo. Public broadcasting relies on government funding that might not always be available. People turn to blogging because that’s the only available, affordable option. I started blogging the news because I believe there is a lack of investigative journalism in Shiawassee County. If we care about the future of investigative blogging, we have to legally differentiate between the bloggers who write for the public good, and those who blog for themselves.

If you are serious about investigative blogging, you need to make this differentiation on your own. Invest in integrity. Join professional associations that support your rights as a blogger. Media Bloggers Association is one organization dedicated to standards and accountability in the new media. The National Writer’s Union will recognize a blogger as a journalist, if the blogger’s work qualifies as journalism. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is vigilant in the support for bloggers’ rights.

Hold yourself to the highest possible standards. Report new information, don’t just copy, paste, and rant. Create a set of policies or a code of ethics for your blog. Disclose any conflict of interests you might have. If you ever face a legal challenge over your position as a blogger, you are going to want to demonstrate that you consistently conduct yourself as a journalist.

If you are interested in some recent blogging related case law, check out Pros And Cons Of The “Investigative Blogging” Meme and this article on Apple v Does.

Lesson #4: Quality takes time – Just one shoddy article can lower the quality of the whole blog. When I first started blogging I thought I had to post at least once each day. That was a good frequency but it quickly became unsustainable. I’m just a part time blogger, and publishing daily meant that I had to put things together rather quickly. Research for a high quality article can take a week or more. After the research is done it can take from a few hours to a few days to write, proof, and publish the article. Rushing this process can suck the quality – and the fun – out of a blog.

There has been a slight dip in my site traffic since my posting has slowed down, most likely because visitors do not know when I will publish. I used to publish a ‘coming up’ post every weekend, but there was no way to guarantee my articles would be published as planned if the articles weren’t already written.

One simple tool available to bloggers is an editorial calendar (thanks Andy, Yvonne), which can help you plan your writing weeks in advance. Once my work schedule is back to normal and I can write with more frequency, I’ll be using this calendar to schedule the articles that are not time-sensitive.

Lesson #5: Learn from everything — If you are interested in investigative blogging, be sure to evaluate your performance as a journalist. Take another look at your older articles. Is there anything you should’ve done differently? Did you burn any bridges? Create new alliances? Are there sources of information that you overlooked?

Don’t be shy in seeking the advice of others. Reach out to fellow bloggers and ask them to critique your work … some will be glad to do this if you give them credit (and links) in your blog. Read other bloggers’ experiences, and study their blogs. Read How We Got the Story – Investigative Blogging in 8, er, 9 Easy Steps for a great article on how one investigative piece came to be written. For an excellent example of investigative blogging, see The Amby debate continues: company denies defect allegations, mother responds.

Let your readers help you too. Allow comments on your blog and publish them even if they’re critical of your work. Criticism doesn’t hurt a blog of integrity. My work has been criticized by some people, though the criticism is not published here because it has been delivered to me via email or word of mouth. I have learned from some of that criticism (see lesson #1), even though it wasn’t very nice.
You should also remember that the product of investigative blogging is a written article, and good information can get lost in bad writing. Be the best writer you can be, in terms of grammar, style, language choice, etc. I don’t have any particular favorites, but there are many online resources to help you be a better writer. Try some of these sites to get started.

You might also study the subject of blogging itself. If you are interested in building a better blog, visit http://www.problogger.net/ and http://performancing.com/. These are quality information sites for anyone who wants to build a better blog.

I’ve learned plenty of other things that I haven’t included, mostly because they’re probably obvious … don’t blog when you’re angry … blog posts are forever (even if you delete a post, it will exist in cache servers) … comment spammers have no shame. Hopefully with this post you’ve been able to learn some things aren’t so obvious.

How about the rest of you? What have you learned from blogging? What advice do you have for your fellow bloggers?

There are no cover bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Follow me on Twitter - @christinebarry
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