The people's information

Posted by AmyStarnes on March 31, 2010 

A very interesting case of journalistic ethics is spiraling out of a breaking story primarily focused on the behavior of a pharmaceutical company that gathered information on Food and Drug Administration officials.

Politico is
reporting that Amphastar Pharmaceuticals Inc. paid a private investigative firm, Kroll, to gather information on the officials. As part of that gathering, the PI firm paid an SF-based freelance journalist to request documents from the FDA using the Freedom of Information Act. 

Now this act applies to anyone. Any person can request information subject to FOIA regardless of their occupation, needs or uses of the information. So largely it shouldn't matter who asked for the information, except that in this instance Politico reports the journalist appears to have lied on documents requesting the information. 

Here's an excerpt from the story:

“I am making this request as a journalist and this information is of timely value,” Melanie Haiken, a San Francisco-based freelance reporter, wrote to the FDA. “As a journalist, I am primarily engaged in disseminating information.”

I've wondered why Haiken included that statement in her FOIA request. It's simply not required by law. Some journalists might use language like that to express an urgency for the return of the information, but the law is very clear on how long an agency has to respond to such requests. I have submitted many, many FOIA requests over my career and I often just reference the section of the law that covers response times.

Politico follows with:

In an e-mail explaining its fees, Kroll told Amphastar that the expenses related to the FOIA covered “the cost of the person we are using to make the requests untraceable to you, the client.”

Well one thing's for sure, it wasn't untraceable.

It will be interesting to see if Haiken comes forward and what the industry has to say about private investigators trying to hide behind journalists to obtain information, even when they are legally allowed to obtain that information no matter their job.

Another evolving discussion is how the ethics of journalism are maintained when every online 'information provider' - freelancer, blogger or otherwise - can be considered a journalist. 

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