How to Deal with Pushback on an Investigative Story

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Gina Pollack had been reporting on recycling for months. As a producer for SoCal Connected, a Los Angeles–based public television show, Pollack and her colleagues visited landfills, recycling-sorting centers, and local restaurants, and conducted dozens of interviews to tell the story of how large corporations have lobbied for recycling as the best solution to packaging waste—despite the fact that relative to simply reducing waste, recycling is inefficient, energy-intensive, and expensive. A core allegation in her story was that DART Industries, a packaging corporation, was lobbying against polystyrene (commonly referred to as Styrofoam) bans and promoting misleading information about polystyrene recycling.

Pollack reached out to DART for comment well before publication. She was surprised when, a few hours after her initial email, her phone rang. It was a third-party PR professional contracted by DART. Pollack put the phone on speaker and listened as the woman aggressively railed against Pollack, telling her she was a bad journalist for not contacting DART at the outset of her reporting, that she was clearly biased and unprofessional. DART was finally placated after Pollack and her editor, Karen Foshay, agreed to interview one of their employees and tour a foam recycling facility. The final piece included DART’s rebuttal, the employee interview, and footage from the factory.

Soon after the episode aired, Pollack, Foshay, and the president of the television station received a long email from DART listing supposed inaccuracies in their piece and demanding an immediate response.

“Companies will do this kind of thing as a scare tactic, to prevent journalists from covering them anymore,” Pollack says. It’s a very effective strategy. “Even though we were totally within our rights, I don’t know if I would do another story about DART at this time, just because I don’t want to deal with them again,” she says. “It was so stressful.”

Uncovering new information, holding powerful people and institutions accountable—these are some of the most valuable functions of journalism. But publishing hard-hitting stories can be punishing. Lawyers and fact-checkers can help minimize legal risks, if the publication you write for has them, but they can’t prevent angry letters, emails, calls, and tweets.

Experienced investigative journalists know that the best way to prepare for and defuse pushback to a story is careful and fair reporting. They also know how to deal with disgruntled sources and public relations professionals, when to engage with criticism after publication, and when to brush it off. Big institutions like corporations or government agencies often respond to critical stories in predictable ways and defend themselves using common tactics. Anticipating them can help prevent unsettling surprises and help you steel yourself to do this important work.


Rock-Solid Reporting Is Your First Defense

The best way to protect yourself from unpleasant experiences after a story is published is to do good reporting and to thoroughly vet the finished piece. Foshay says Pollack and the team had fact-checked the recycling story three times before publication. In responding to the letter from DART, they were able to rebut all of the claimed inaccuracies, and they hired a First Amendment lawyer to draft a response including these rebuttals. They never heard from DART again.

Jimmy Tobias, a freelance investigative reporter who covers the environment and public lands, files dozens of FOIA requests every year and tries to base his scoops in documents as much as possible. He recently published a story in The Guardian in which he used interviews and documents obtained through FOIA to describe how a secretive U.S. agency uses cyanide bombs to kill predators. He found the bombs often kill pets, and even poisoned one child.

Soon after the story was published, someone tangentially related to the story emailed Tobias and his editor demanding a change to a small detail in the piece, or they would sue.

“This person basically claimed that I got facts wrong and it amounted to libel,” Tobias says. “Of course it’s scary to get something like that.” But Tobias had numerous documents backing up the statements this person said were wrong. He was able to respond to the lawsuit threat with an email citing all the documents he’d used to support the assertions. “I think it would have been a much scarier situation if the claims I had made had just been someone telling me, or just a couple of people telling me,” he says.

Ensuring every allegation in a piece is backed up by substantial reporting is the cornerstone of an unassailable investigative story.

Ensuring every allegation in a piece is backed up by substantial reporting is the cornerstone of an unassailable investigative story. After the facts are lined up is a good time to reach out to the subject of an investigation, leaving plenty of time before publication.

“It’s really important that whatever a source feels, that they have the chance to express what they’re feeling before the story publishes, and that I can hear their perspective as fully as possible,” Caroline Chen who covers healthcare for ProPublica, told me via email. “At ProPublica, if a source doesn’t want to be interviewed, I’ll send a ‘no-surprises letter’ detailing what my story is going to be about, and laying out specific questions.”

Chen once sent one of these letters and a few minutes later, the source she’d just emailed called her. She picked up and he opened with, “This is off the record!” before starting to yell at her, saying the story was unfair and she didn’t understand him. “All I kept saying to him was, ‘I’d really like to get your response on the record, because I want to include your perspective in my story.’ It was a bit awkward because I had to raise my voice a bit to get through to him and half the newsroom was staring at me.” Eventually he hung up on her. He called back fifteen minutes later and said he would like to give an on-the-record statement.

As happened with both Chen and Pollack, reaching out to the subject of an investigation is often initially adversarial, but can still lead to getting important on-the-record comments. (TON previously reported on how to conduct these interviews, including an example of a “no-surprises letter.”) Letting the source respond before the story is published can help minimize aggressive phone calls after it’s out.

Similarly, it can be useful to make sure your editor is aware a story might be controversial long before the piece is published—especially if you’re a freelancer.

“Editors are busy. Sometimes you pitch them something and they like the sound of it, they accept it, and you get to work on it, but maybe they didn’t fully understand the context or how sensitive something might be, or the players who might push back,” Tobias says. “So I try to fill my editors in before the story is published on what, what might be sticking points.”

If the editor knows what they’re getting into ahead of time, it’s more likely they’ll be ready to fully support you if anything comes up. Additionally, they will be aware you may need extra legal oversight or fact-checking help for the story.


Typical PR Responses: Know What to Expect

Reaching out to the subject of your investigation for an interview, or at least a statement, is essential to a fair investigation, but beware that overloading a reporter with corporate fluff and self-promotion is one of several common self-defense tactics. DART insisted Pollack take a full tour of their recycling facility, and film everything, even though she’d explicitly said she only wanted a short interview.

Erin Brodwin, a health-technology reporter at STAT, has plenty of experience dealing with PR professionals disrupting or trying to discredit her reporting. They have good reason to be wary of her: Brodwin’s coverage of uBiome, a microbiome start-up, led to an FBI investigation and the company’s eventual bankruptcy.

Brodwin says she sees a lot of patterns in the responses to critical stories.

“They always act very surprised. Then they usually try to kind of flood you with resources— factsheets [and] bullet-point statements—and then when you have a follow-up question, oftentimes they will refuse to directly answer the question, but will instead answer it in company or PR-speak,” she says, “which is really frustrating because you just want a clear, in English, answer.”

In the lead-up to publication, companies or their PR contact will often reach out to her constantly, asking questions about the story and trying to provide more information or interviews that will reflect positively on them.

“Is there anything else you can tell us about the story, when it’s publishing, what time is it publishing? Will it be paywalled or will it not be paywalled? What will the headline be? What other experts did you talk to? Then they’ll often also offer to connect you to an expert that they have already vetted,” Brodwin says. “At first, especially if you are kind of a newer journalist, you might think, ‘Oh, great. They’re offering to connect me to this external expert.’ [But] how external can they be if the PR company is offering to introduce you to them?”

As happened with Pollack’s story on DART, it’s common for a story subject’s PR or legal team to go over the reporter’s head and send a letter of complaint to their editor, or even higher up than that. Pollack was on a long-term contract with KCET at the time her story was published, and Foshay was on staff, which gave them added security and credibility at their organization—and the ability to sit down in the same room with KCET’s president and lawyer and hash everything out. Freelancers usually don’t have those luxuries.

“When you’re a freelancer [it’s] kind of scary, because you don’t work for this publication full time,” Tobias says. “Your reputation with them is really important, and a lot depends on your relationships with your editor. There’s no guarantee they’ll keep working with you.” Tobias says the best ways to make sure a publication does keep working with you after a story generates significant pushback are the same principles that will make your story good: strong evidence for every assertion, thorough and fair reporting, and clear communication with your editor.

Though she doesn’t often receive legal threats for her work at STAT, Brodwin says she frequently receives disparaging notes, and that certain ways the emails are structured can be particularly stressful, and sometimes surprisingly personal. “Oftentimes rather than pointing out, you know, inaccuracies with the story—which they typically cannot do—they start resorting to personal attacks. Things like, You’re not intelligent enough to understand, not experienced enough to understand. Maybe not directly, but they will insinuate that you’re not capable,” she says. “I had one company, for example, indicate that my notetaking abilities were not up to snuff because they saw me taking notes in person and said that I took something down wrong, which I didn’t.”

Even when an email doesn’t contain a personal attack or legal threat it can be unsettling. “Sometimes I’ve gotten emails where all the bullet points are in bright red, oftentimes with many all caps,” Brodwin says. Or she’ll get an email with the subject line “correction request,” which starts her heart racing—only to find that it’s actually a request to edit the story to be more favorable, with no actual corrections described. In this case, there’s not much to do besides brush it off.


Disgruntled Sources: Be Upfront from the Beginning

Unlike companies, research institutions, or government officials, individuals you’ve interviewed for a story likely won’t have a professional representing them in dealing with you. This can make it easier to get interviews and information, but it requires extra care on your part to make sure you’re representing yourself accurately. It can be a difficult dance—wanting to ingratiate yourself enough to get your questions answered without giving the source the wrong impression of your story.

“That’s one of the mistakes I made very early on,” says Tobias. When he was early in his career, working at an independent newspaper in Missoula, he reported a hard-hitting story on a campaign that Americans for Prosperity was running to gut public pensions in Montana, which involved an interview with a conservative activist. “I think they got the impression that I was going to write a really friendly article or something,” he says. “So when I wrote a pretty scathing article, the person was really upset.”

Even the most experienced journalists are affected by pushback, even when they know it isn’t fair. Most things are under your control: accurate, well-documented reporting, and clear, timely communication with your sources, PR professionals, and editors.

Being upfront about the nature of your story—that it isn’t necessarily a friendly piece, or a wholly positive take on a particular issue or company—is important in dealing with any source, not just someone who is the subject of your investigation. Dealing with activists, or victims of alleged wrongdoing, requires maintaining professional distance to prevent disappointment. It’s important to be clear from the beginning that you’re not writing the story to argue a particular side, or to advocate on behalf of these aggrieved parties (unless you really are). Maintaining that line can help avoid anger from a source who feels a story doesn’t go far enough in accusations of wrongdoing.

Even the most experienced journalists are affected by pushback, even when they know it isn’t fair. Most things are under your control: accurate, well-documented reporting, and clear, timely communication with your sources, PR professionals, and editors. Once you’ve taken care of those things, all that’s left is to brace yourself, try to stay in control of your emotions, and remember why the work is important.

Brodwin tries to take herself out of the equation. “My huge rule of thumb, that I literally try to tell myself on repeat, is, It’s not personal,” she says. “I do tend to take things personally. I do tend to feel, Oh, no, I disappointed someone—that’s never a good feeling. But in reality, they would have sent that response to any person who did the due diligence and did this thorough reporting.”

Doing work that holds power accountable is a public service, which is what makes it both hard and rewarding. “I just do my best to remember that everyone I interact with is human, and I can understand if they’re upset,” Chen said via email. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to back down from telling the truth or holding them accountable. It also helps to remember who I’m writing on behalf of, which is people who may not have the platform or voice to hold the powerful accountable—and to serve the public. It’s really not about me.”



Mallory Pickett Courtesy of Mallory Pickett

Mallory Pickett is a freelance science journalist who has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, Slate, and more. Follow her on Twitter @MalloryLPickett.

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