New Agreements for Investigative Freelancing
A discussion on freelancer liability
Too many freelance investigative journalists are asked to sign indemnity clauses that burden them with legal liabilities for sensitive stories. Even a frivolous lawsuit over a bulletproof investigation can wreak utter havoc with the freelancer's life and finances.
Yet that's the option many publishers and broadcasters are offering.
A prudent freelancer may consider: Why not just write feature stories?
As it turns out, there's an alternative. With a little savviness about contracts, unaffiliated reporters actually can protect themselves enough to contribute sensitive investigations in the public interest, as a growing number of outlets and freelancers are showing.
We convened Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein, former Bloomberg News Global Media Counsel Charles Glasser, freelance investigative reporter Alexandria Bordas, and FIRE executive director Laird Townsend for a lively roundtable discussion on legal liabilities and freelance contracts.
The event featured decades worth of tips, tactics, and hard-won insight from every angle of freelance journalism—and the unveiling of two new tools to advance the field: the FIRE Contract Principles and FIRE Contract Template.
On hand were freelance journalists—and the editors, producers, publishers, and broadcasters who work with them.
The discussion took place on September 28, 2021, and a recording is available here.
For more information, please email email@example.com, using "Panel recording" in the subject line.
For panelists' bios and more on FIRE, see below.
Monika Bauerlein became Mother Jones’ chief executive officer in 2015 after serving as co-editor (with Clara Jeffery) for nine years. Under her tenure, Mother Jones has grown its audience twentyfold, doubled the size of its staff, established bureaus in Washington and New York, won multiple awards, and launched a campaign to establish a new media business model centered on reader support for investigative and in-depth reporting.
Charles Glasser, a former contract reporter and photojournalist for the Associated Press and other outlets, spent 14 years as the Global Media Counsel for Bloomberg News, where he was responsible for pre-publication review, ethics issues, management of media litigation, and training of more than 2,200 reporters in more than 120 bureaus on media law, ethical issues, and journalistic fundamentals, with an emphasis on investigative and business news. A New York University journalism professor, Glasser is acknowledged as an expert in international media law and is the author and editor of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook” (Fifth Ed., 2020, Lexis/Nexis).
Alexandria Bordas is an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. Working as a freelancer, Bordas spent two years investigating four women's allegations of sexual misconduct by a rising political star in California’s wine country. With assistance from FIRE, Bordas negotiated legal protections from the Chronicle that allowed her to publish this exposé — which quickly surfaced five additional accusers of the same alleged perpetrator. Bordas previously investigated state agencies in North Carolina and abuse of the California Voting Rights Act, in addition to beat coverage on mental health and domestic violence.
Laird Townsend, FIRE Director
Laird Townsend, an award-winning reporter and magazine editor, is the director of Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE). FIRE has helped freelancers produce public-interest investigations for a range of outlets, from the Dallas Morning News, the Boston Globe, and the Guardian, to Mother Jones, the New Yorker, Reveal, and the BBC. In early 2021 with the support of Craig Newmark Philanthropies, FIRE expanded to launch contract-related legal assistance.
Hilary Niles, FIRE Freelance Program Coordinator
Hilary Niles will moderate the discussion. Niles, an independent multimedia journalist and trainer, is Chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freelance Community and a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. An alumna of the Missouri School of Journalism graduate program, she has reported for the BBC World Service, NPR, The Boston Globe, and magazines from Vermont to Australia.
Notes on FIRE: This panel, made possible with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, advances FIRE’s work to support and protect freelance investigative journalists in the public interest. In 2020, FIRE committed to supporting only stories for which the publisher or broadcaster indemnifies the freelancer—and to challenging the rest of the industry to follow suit.
For the trends driving FIRE's legal services, visit FIRE's Case for Protecting Freelancers. To weigh in on contractual needs, freelancers are encouraged to take this brief survey.
FIRE also provides editorial support for freelance journalists through a pro bono Legal Consultancy program, and our flagship FIRE Reporting Consultancy and Virtual Newsroom.