Number-crunching, public records drive powerful reporting
There’s a running joke among journalists that they went into the news business because they didn’t do well in math.
As a longtime journalist who struggled with freshman algebra, I can relate. Still, even those of us with anxiety about numbers have come to embrace the investigative value of data. Number-crunching and access to public records drive some of the news media’s most powerful and important reporting, including these examples from the past year:
• The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reviewed more than 22,000 police misconduct cases and more than 12,000 pages of documents and found that dozens of officers with extensive records of alleged misconduct faced little discipline and remained in law enforcement.
• The Los Angeles Times studied public records to reveal that tens of millions of dollars were wasted by the Los Angeles Community College District due to inadequate flood plans, cost overruns and poor construction.
• In a year-long investigation, The New York Times reviewed the records of more than 2,000 state-run group homes and found about 13,000 allegations of abuse in one year, with fewer than 5% reported to police.
At its best, journalism can uncover government waste and misconduct and point out where the system is broken. This week, we’re reminded of the importance of this kind of reporting during Sunshine Week, an annual event raising awareness of the importance of open records and open meetings.
Power of data
The public sometimes looks askance at the extensive use of anonymous sources, but stories based on data and public records don’t stand or fall on the credibility of a tipster. These investigations are based on information compiled by the government, which is then used to assess how well the government is doing its job.
But government at every level resists disclosure. If you can track government activities, you can ask tough questions. That’s a hard sell for people in power. It’s no surprise that there are always reasons to keep public records and data out of the hands of the press and the public. After 9/11, governments routinely turned down records requests, citing national security.
Today, there’s a different mantra: the need to protect personal privacy. “In an alarming number of states, efforts have been launched to take data that has long been public and either make it private, or severely restrict what is available,” said Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. “Too often these efforts are portrayed as protecting individual privacy, but they often do more to protect the agencies holding the data.”
Do you want to know what kind of deal your state is making to attract new businesses? Proposed legislation in Tennessee would keep the identity of the business owners secret until after the state commits to tax breaks and incentives.
Want to know how courts are handling lawsuits? Judges too often seal all records and make the outcomes secret, according to the Judicial Conference.
Would you like to know how responsive 911 operators are in dealing with emergencies? There have been efforts nationwide to make 911 recordings secret, including a California bill inspired by a call for aid for actress Demi Moore. A Los Angeles Times columnist pointed out that the recording showed jurisdictional confusion, a delayed response and a “churlish” response by a 911 operator.
Public deserves access
And so it goes. Public records compiled by public officials should be fully available to the public. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, we paid for these records, and we intend to use them.
Of course, legislative battles are only half the battle. There are also significant questions about how supportive news organizations can be in the future.
In an era of declining newspaper circulation and reduced staffs, it’s vital to preserve hard-hitting, impeccably documented reporting. But that’s not a given. Journalistic investigations based on data and public records take time and money. With lower revenue and fewer resources, the commitment becomes that much tougher. Nor are advertisers clamoring to be adjacent to corruption coverage.
In some ways, we live in a golden age of journalism, with millions posting news and information on personal websites and blogs. Content is everywhere. But it’s one thing to opine about American Idol or call out your city government, and quite another to review tens of thousands of documents in pursuit of the truth. Quantity of content doesn’t guarantee quality of content, and the kind of work done by America’s professional news media — profit and nonprofit — will be done by no one else.
In the nation’s earliest days, Americans supported press freedom because they recognized that someone had to keep an eye on people in power. The business model may be changing, but the mission hasn’t.
In the end, the press and public are partners in supporting the free flow of data and the kind of journalism that makes a difference. Otherwise, we’ll live in an impaired democracy in which the public’s access to information has been trumped by government secrecy, with no one left with the resources to champion the cause.
Fighting for access to public records and documenting the truth is expensive, but we cannot afford the alternative.
This article was first published in USA Today March 13.