#2: Business interests re-examined
Any investigative story takes so much time, attention, and support—so many pains to encourage, guide, and vet the reporting—that it’s a fair to wonder, why bother.
Of course, it’s not a rhetorical question: Why commission investigations at all? And why by freelancers? The answers are well known if not universally appreciated:
- the public needs investigations
- democracy depends on them
- the cachet of doing important work can have direct and indirect rewards
- freelancers can make ideal investigative reporters because they can be
- strongly motivated to explore a general story area
- highly informed about a specific subject and associated sources
- capable of going deep into particular stories
- able to deliver stories economically even when paid fairly and generously.
But if you do indeed commission freelance investigations, then you have one more precise question to answer, along with related ones about pay and rights and editorial procedures: Do you agree to indemnify the reporter for the story?
The answer is always yes. Reasonably careful stories typically do not lose in court. There is no evidence that contract reporting is more likely to result in legal action. And if a publisher or broadcaster has been doing accountability journalism all along, indemnifying the freelancer doesn’t cost more and rarely involves paperwork.
Without a real downside, it also makes eminent sense as a business strategy.
In the field’s rapid diversification of outlets, publishers are competing more furiously than ever for readers’ attention—and investigative stories serving the public interest can be among the most highly read and rewarded stories. If you don’t work with independent contractors, this may be irrelevant. But if you depend on freelancers to fill the holes, or plan to, then you have the issue of retention.
With newsroom cuts, freelance reporters are potentially more important to the newsgathering equation than ever. They represent a powerful opportunity. But a poor indemnity policy blunts that opportunity, because it can discourage and repel the most experienced freelance investigative reporters. And any forfeit of investigative advantage can decrease the value of any publication or broadcaster, as measured in all the usual ways: readership, prestige, awards and ultimately, revenue.
You do not want to damage your reputation among freelancers. Word travels around quickly that certain publications leave open the option to “throw reporters under the bus” in the event of a libel suit. Some outlets may choose to under-promise and over-deliver. They may privately resolve to protect reporters in a pinch but will not agree up front to do so.
The problem is, accomplished freelance reporters—especially those with a following or well-respected byline—are sensitive about entering into agreements whereby the publisher won’t commit, in advance, to stand by the reporter.
It’s a warning signal: When you insist on retaining the ability to do wrong by a reporter—when you refuse to rule out isolating or externalizing the reporter in a pinch—your terms can hardly sit well with the reporter. If you become known for not agreeing up front to stand by your journalists or defend their published or broadcasted work, you may also be seen as unwilling to do so when the need arises. If one, why not the other?
In addition, the public is ever more attuned to the inner workings of newsrooms, partly because journalism tends to look at itself somewhat more transparently than it did in the past. Trust in a newsroom’s integrity—always its most valuable asset—is far more easily earned than regained.
About the FIRE Tip Sheets
FIRE Tip Sheets highlight some of the key questions raised at a 2021 FIRE panel on freelancer liability. Future guides will address intellectual property, pay rates, and other key issues for freelancers. An annotated list of the complete FIRE Tip Sheets appears here.
FIRE Tip Sheets are made available for educational and informational purposes only: They are not legal advice. FIRE makes no representation or warranty for any particular fitness of purpose and is not responsible for the effect of any reliance upon FIRE Tip Sheets or other information provided by FIRE.
FIRE Tip Sheets are meant to open a dialogue in the public interest. To help us improve them, please email email@example.com, subject line "Tip Sheet feedback." To query or clarify any element of Tip Sheet for use in freelance investigative reporting, please follow instructions at Legal Consultancy.
FIRE Tip Sheets are made possible by support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.
© Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors, 2022