Helen Santoro

FIRE's legal assistance helped Helen Santoro's pet-industry investigation

"Good freelancers need good contracts"

It started with two kinds of good luck for freelancer Helen Santoro.

First, a source unexpectedly handed her a cache of public records with significant implications. Second, she requested professional advice about the records on a Listserv, only to prompt a nonprofit publisher, 100Reporters, to invite a commissioned piece co-published with the Associated Press.

She would also go on to receive support for the story from FIRE's friends at the Fund for Investigative Journalism (grant) and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (legal review).  

The result: Santoro’s in-depth investigation of the pet-food industry, released last week by 100Reporters and, abridged, by the Associated Press.

Revealing influence

In her reporting, Santoro revealed evidence that grain-based pet-food interests appeared to have influenced the Food and Drug Administration’s research into links between a heart ailment in pets and grain-free food sold by their competitors. The findings were inconclusive but publicity about the research reversed rising sales for grain-free dog foods. The reporting also showed that suppliers of ingredients used in grain-free dog foods have pressured the FDA to protect their market.

The story almost didn’t happen. FIRE intervened to resolve a sticky liability question. But the publisher responded quickly and responsibly, the story, ran, and Santoro learned that her reporting was picked up by 100-plus papers nationwide, including Denver Post and Seattle Times.

Below is Santoro’s back story and personal reflections in her own words, with editor's comments bracketed in italics. Freelance journalists like Santoro and the outlets that contract them have received FIRE legal consultations thanks to the support of Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

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This has been 6-7 months in making. What a relief that it's out.

As a freelancer, I try to be legally savvy. I always fight for the best contract possible, in case someone sues for defamation. Even if the case ultimately gets thrown out, that's still really scary as a freelancer—a terrifying prospect.

And some stories are even higher stakes than others.

I was concerned the contract in question was not up to snuff. I sensed gaps that didn't quite work. Not for this level of story.

[Editor's note: According to FIRE attorney Charles Glasser, Santoro's instinct was correct. The contract required several precise changes to adequately protect her, similar to those found in this FIRE Tip Sheet.]

In my mind this story was too sensitive, too big of a risk not to have a perfect contract—full protection against potential liability.

Having FIRE's support was a complete game-changer. It was a huge relief having FIRE look over the contract as extensively as it did, make sure it was in the best shape possible.  

Without that I would have been way more hesitant to take on this story, would have lost a lot more sleep the night it published, would not be feeling as good right now. I'd be really concerned right now for myself, my business.

Actually I might not have proceeded at all. There's a good chance story would not be published yet. And I don't know how long it would have taken to place the story. A perfect contract is hard to find.

Obviously the freelancer and the publication are in it together. No freelancer wants to get sued any more than a publication does.

But as freelancers sometimes we are thought of as disposable thing not connected to publication. OK, maybe a publisher can argue that "distance" more for a short news piece with no editing, but not for a sensitive investigation that takes half year or more working closely together when you're both invested in getting it right.

In those cases, I see no reason not to indemnify the independent contractor.

Getting good protection on contracts benefits everyone. Obviously the freelancer: there's just so much time wasted on dealing with bad contracts, when we need to be getting good reporting done — especially for investigative stories that take so much time and effort.

And from the publication's standpoint, too— a good story benefits the publication, they get that coverage, it's only helping them.

Some might think that this kind of intervention only benefits freelancers. But that's coming from the traditional space in which freelancers are supposed to say "yes" to everything, and can't stand up for ourselves.

Some might think that this kind of intervention only benefits freelancers. But that's coming from the traditional space in which freelancers are supposed to say "yes" to everything, and can't stand up for ourselves. I'm seeing freelancers in my communities fighting back for better pay, rights, doing something like this with FIRE.

They're starting to understand: if the contract only benefits the outlet, they can walk. Freelancers need to know that they can do that.

So, this benefits the outlet, too. Because they get the story—as opposed to losing it. And then, the outlet gets to keep those good freelancers around. Good freelancers want good contracts.