For the past few months, I’ve been working on an investigative story that requires filing public records requests in several states. I tend to file more federal than state requests, which means I’m used to waiting, and waiting, to get my hands on documents. Sometimes they’re never produced.
So I was pleasantly surprised when several states produced the information I asked for within days or a week of my request. But then I ran up against the laws of Arkansas and Tennessee.
I knew a handful of states prohibit out-of-staters from obtaining records. But it wasn’t until this past week that I had to personally contend with laws that limit freedom of information requests to state residents only — even if the consequences of those actions cross state lines.
An attorney with an Arkansas state agency told me that he had the records I wanted, but was denying my request because I don’t live there. (I checked with a lawyer at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to make sure the residency requirement was still in effect. He confirmed that it is.)
I filed two public records requests in Tennessee, one to a university and another to a state agency. Jason Miller, an agency attorney, emailed me this message: “The Department denies your request pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. §10-7-503(a)(2) on the basis that state records are open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee, and your request does not appear to be submitted by a Tennessee citizen.” A university administrator told me she would deny my request unless I produced a valid Tennessee driver’s license or current utility bill.
Enterprising reporters can find proxies to file requests on their behalf. I found someone in Arkansas willing to help me through the Arkansas Press Association. I’m still working on finding a proxy in Tennessee. (For more tips on how to access public records from state and federal agencies, check out “The Science Writers’ Investigative Reporting Handbook.”)
Virginia also has a residency requirement, though it does allow exemptions for journalists whose outlets publish in the state.
Residency requirements impede journalists’ ability to do our jobs by blocking access to public documents that may be critical to investigations that cross state lines. They interfere with our ability to inform citizens about issues that affect them.
States have defended their residency requirements by saying out-of-state requests strain resources that should be reserved for their citizens. That’s what Virginia Solicitor General Earle Duncan Getchell argued in 2013 before the Supreme Court in McBurney v. Young.
The case was brought by two out-of-state residents, Mark McBurney of Rhode Island and Roger Hurlbert of California, who challenged Virginia’s denial of their request on constitutional grounds. Getchell argued that handling out-of-state requests creates a financial burden because the state has to hire people to do the work but can’t charge for overhead. “As one who is subject to FOIA requests,” Getchell argued, “we have a finite number of officials and employees who have to address these things.”
Several justices questioned whether fulfilling out-of-state requests really constitutes an added burden, since the state has to maintain the databases for Virginia citizens anyway. But in the end, they ruled in a unanimous decision that denying out-of-state residents access to government records does not violate the U.S. Constitution. “The Court has repeatedly stated that the Constitution does not guarantee the existence of FOIA laws,” Justice Samuel Alioto wrote.
Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that states routinely make decisions that affect citizens beyond their borders. Consider the ongoing efforts by New York, Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states to curb air pollution from coal-fired plants in several states in the South and Midwest — including Virginia and Tennessee. Reporters and citizens in upwind states have every right to know why Tennessee, Virginia and neighboring states have failed to implement pollution controls.
Access to information may not be a constitutional right, but it’s essential for journalists to monitor government and serve the public interest. “Events that occur within Virginia are newsworthy beyond its borders, and non-citizen journalists across the country require access to state records in every jurisdiction,” a coalition of journalism groups argued in an amicus brief in support of McBurney and Hurlbert. “Access to state public records by non-citizens aids comparative and macro-analysis reporting thereby allowing the press to fulfill its watchdog role.”
Residency requirements make a mockery of the transparency that open government laws are meant to embrace. State officials who enforce these restrictions in effect say, we have the documents you want, but you don’t meet our arbitrary requirement, so we’re just not going to give them to you. That attitude undermines the public’s right to know what our government is up to.
The vast majority of states respect that right, with no residency restriction. We can continue to find people to file requests on our behalf in the few outlier states that don’t. Or maybe it’s time to push for an end to hollow talk by elected officials, and make state governments embrace both the spirit and intent of open records laws.
Health and science reporters received a shock a few weeks ago, when they learned they’d soon lose one of the smartest resources out there for covering health care. “It appears that this unique project’s span of more than 12 years of public service to journalism and to the general public will end in December, when HealthNewsReview.org ceases publication,” wrote the site’s founder and editor, Gary Schwitzer. “Our current funding ends then with no replacement funding in sight, and I will slip into retirement.”
The site’s experts and journalists analyze health care research and claims made in studies and press releases — often by calling out those who parrot hyped results — to help reporters avoid common pitfalls. It also provides a database of experts with no affiliation to industry, a particularly valuable tool, given the body of evidence showing that industry-funded research tends to favor the sponsor’s interests.
HealthNewsReview has long provided the type of critical oversight of health research that I wish we had for science reporting as a whole. (The Knight Science Journalism Tracker offered a similar service, peer reviewing science stories, until it shut down in 2014.) There’s no denying that it’s fun to write about the strange beauty of the natural world. And there’s certainly a need for those kinds of stories. But at a time when climate-change deniers occupy the highest offices in the land, it’s imperative that more science-savvy journalists spend time scrutinizing science, to uncover cases where it’s abused to serve private interests.
Many of the science reporters I interviewed for “The Science Writers” Investigative Reporting Handbook” have long covered science as they would any other beat. Deborah Blum, who runs the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, worries that science journalists are too often trained to think the official version of an event is the truth. Yet the truth is multifaceted, she told me, and in the end science is really just about people trying to understand the world around them. “That doesn’t elevate it from being a human enterprise just like everything else, full of hubris and ego and mistakes and cover-ups and all the other things that attend to every human enterprise.”
Journalists play a critical role in democracy by giving readers the information they need to be good citizens. Science journalists can do the same by treating science, and scientists, with skepticism. News stories about the latest science developments are important, said Charles Piller, an investigative reporter for Science magazine, but that’s just part of how the public should understand science. “That’s why investigations into all the elements that might undermine or corrupt or influence the way in which scientific work is understood and interpreted are really vital.” Every day brings new details about the many ways the Trump administration is trying to delegitimize the science that underpins critical health and environmental regulations. We need all the tools at our disposal to monitor and expose abuses of science to serve powerful interests. I hope someone with deep pockets steps in to save HealthNewsReviews.org. But I also hope more science journalists are moved to dig beneath the surface to reveal when individuals and organizations distort science to subvert the public interest. That involves unearthing information of public importance that someone doesn’t want revealed. And making, rather than reporting, news. Now, more than ever, that’s exactly what democracy needs. As Zen radio reporter Scoop Nisker used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
The annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, which wrapped up Sunday, is always jam-packed with tips, tools and advice for both novice and veteran investigators. But if, like me, you weren’t able to make it this year, there’s plenty of wisdom to be soaked up simply by scanning the #IRE18 feed on Twitter. Like this:
It’s well worth reading through the 2,000-plus tweets posted by reporters eager to share what they’d gleaned from some of the best in the business. But of course that takes time, so I’ve pulled out some pearls to ponder and resources to explore.
It’s inspiring to see the camaraderie and generosity of journalists trying to help their colleagues up their game and find and tell the best stories they can. They’ve offered tips on tracking this administration’s daily assaults on science, human rights and democracy, and encouraged reporters to figure out how those abuses are playing out in their communities and how to give voices to those struggling to be heard.
The sessions covered an incredible diversity of topics, from tips on reporting techniques (software for data reporting, investigative interviewing tips, data visualization programs) to advice on covering specific issues (guns, healthcare, crime labs) and much more. I’ve highlighted below some tips and resources to introduce science journalists to the mindset and tools investigative reporters learn. But I encourage you to scroll through #IRE18. You might find just the tool you’ve been looking for to add depth to your reporting.
“You should not be doing investigations on issues. You should be doing investigations on people swept up in the issues.” –@DwayneBrayESPN#IRE18
When you start a project, open 3 files, 1) chronology file – organize events by time. 2) Notes – one centralized searchable repository for photos. links. 3) questions file – list of questions you need answered. T Christian Miller #ire18
A quarter-century ago, a hard-nosed Chicago Tribune investigative reporter named John Crewdson excoriated science journalists, in a piece headlined “Perky Cheerleaders,” for covering their beat as true believers, anxious for great scientists to perform great feats. “When Professor Schmidtlapp says he’s discovered something big, the science writers, their collective belief reaffirmed (and their own stature enhanced), don’t draw their guns and make him put his cards on the table,” Crewdson argued. “They don’t flyspeck his raw data, don’t check his funding sources, don’t scrutinize his previous articles for mistakes … They like science, they probably admire Schmidtlapp and they’re excited by the prospect that he’s right. So they just ask him how to spell whatever it is and write it down.”
A variation on the “science writers as stenographers” trope has emerged periodically ever since Crewdson landed this first blow. I appreciate the call for greater scrutiny of science and make a similar plea in The Science Writers’ Investigative Reporting Handbook — the third in a series of how-to guides published by members of SciLance, the science writers’ tribe who brought you this blog. (See below, for more on this series.)
But — and this is a big but — I believe this perennial knock on science writers deserves greater scrutiny as well. It overlooks the many examples of tough-minded stories that have revealed how individuals and powerful interests have used and abused science in pursuit of private gain. I also believe, based on countless conversations with colleagues over the years, that many science writers would like to try investigative reporting but haven’t done so because they weren’t sure how to start.
That’s why I sought — and gratefully received — a Peggy Girshman Idea Grant from the National Association of Science Writers. I wanted to demystify investigative reporting for my fellow science writers and give them both the tools and confidence to launch their own investigations. I wanted to share the knowledge I’d picked up on the fly as a greenhorn, and later gleaned from workshops, tutorials, my own accumulated experience and sage advice from veteran investigators. The grant gave me the opportunity to revisit all the materials I’d benefited from over the years and talk shop with veteran investigators who’d parlayed their indignation at injustice into reform-sparking exposés. (It’s not a coincidence that the acronym for Investigative Reporters and Editors is IRE.)
Some reporters believe there’s no real difference between investigative reporting and other types of journalism. For them, it’s all just good reporting. But investigative reporting carries risks you don’t have to worry about with other types of stories. Consider the definition an early mentor of mine, Joe Bergantino, uses in his trainings: investigative reporting is “making something public that someone would rather keep secret that’s of public importance.”
To break that down a little, you’re revealing something someone doesn’t want revealed. Something that has consequences for a lot of people — which means that “someone” probably is in a position of power. And that means there’s a lot riding on what you publish: it’s not just your subject’s reputation that could suffer but yours too, if your story turns out to be wrong. Even if your story is airtight, you’re likely to be extremely unpopular in certain circles. You might even get sued by subjects with the time and money to drag you through a frivolous lawsuit.
On the positive side — and I believe this is a big positive, which is why I wrote this book — you can change people’s lives for the better with these types of stories. And when you make every effort to nail down the facts, and ensure that you have legal protection, you start recognizing blowback for what it is: a sign that your story uncovered something someone would rather keep secret.
In the coming months I’ll share tips and insights from the book on this blog to help journalists — at least those with no intention of being perky cheerleaders — treat science with the same scrutiny they would any other human enterprise.
Ask 50 different science journalists how they started writing about science and you’re likely to get 50 different answers. Still, many of my colleagues came to the field with a science background. I did not. It wasn’t until I started writing about environmental health that I cracked a graduate level molecular biology textbook to understand the sort of disease mechanisms you don’t learn about in a political science seminar. Then I started searching PubMed and was surprised to discover how much information lay locked away in the scientific literature — either sitting behind a paywall or comprehensible only to 100 experts. Though it took quite a lot of time and effort to separate the interesting trend from the interesting artifact at first, I thought readers had a right to know the difference between evidence-based and illusory environmental risks. (Whether communicating evidence increases public acceptance of evidence is a complex story for another day.)
But we can do more than just report on patterns that scientists find. We can unearth those patterns ourselves. Science journalists who come to the enterprise with a science degree are in some ways uniquely qualified to do this. So why don’t more of them do it?
Science journalist Peter Aldhous raised this question on a National Association of Science Writers’ listserv earlier this month, prompted by a discussion of the “sting investigation” by John Bohannon recently published in Science. Bohannon sent a bogus “wonder drug” research paper to 304 pay-to-publish open access journals. More than half of those journals that sent it for review accepted it. (Full disclosure: I work part-time as a senior editor for the magazine section of the open-access journal PLOS Biology.)
Some criticized the story for not using a control group (journals that use the subscription model), while others argued that it’s not Bohannon’s job to run a case-control study. Peter, a contributor to MATTER and Medium who teaches investigative reporting at the University of Santa Cruz Science Communication Program, wrote on the listserv (posted here with his permission):
There are definitely differences between science and reporting, as I discuss with my students at UC Santa Cruz in our classes on investigative journalism. However, I believe passionately that science journalism would be a richer profession if more of its practitioners considered when original data analysis, and even the design and commission or execution of methodologically sound studies, is appropriate.
I asked him to share his thoughts on using data in science reporting and why we don’t see more of it. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Those who have criticized Bohannon, mostly scientists, have focused on the lack of a control, calling it a shoddy science experiment. Do you see a problem, from a journalism perspective, with his methodology?
I’ve been a little critical as well. But my criticism, and surprise, was less with him and more with Science, because Science has a dog in this fight. I know there’s separation between the news side and the original research side. I used to work there, so I know that very well. But I think for a publication that is involved in the traditional model of publishing to run an article that focuses particularly on open access just seemed not terribly well thought through. Even if you think there’s likely to be a problem with open access journals lowering their standards of what they accept because of the business model, why not compare it with a traditional model? I just don’t get why you wouldn’t do it.
Some of the response to that has been, well, look, he’s not a scientist, he’s a journalist, you’ve got to look at these two things separately, they’re not the same discipline. I don’t agree. I believe that sound data analysis can be an integral part of journalism. And in that regard, though there are important differences between journalism and science, I believe journalism can include aspects of the scientific method in gathering the information you use to drive an informed piece of journalism. I think it’s a bit of a false distinction.
What, in your view, is one of the most important things an investigative reporter, or any reporter, should keep in mind when doing an investigation?
Most of the people doing this call themselves investigative reporters. Very few come from a background in science. This is my surprise and disappointment, because a lot of people who are science journalists, like me, were originally trained in science. I happen to have a PhD, but I don’t think it’s necessarily important. But a lot of people have been trained in designing studies, doing statistical analyses, and so on. And I think it’s wholly appropriate for us to keep doing that as we report on the scientific enterprise. I’m not saying you should do a PhD project rather than a news story. There are certain questions, more discrete, more journalistic, that you can get at by applying some of those methods you learned. Unfortunately, we don’t see too much of that, and I think science journalism is poorer for it.
Many science writers take an explanatory or isn’t-science-cool perspective rather than a speaking-truth-to-power journalism perspective. But you’d think people would naturally embrace the same models they used to understand how something works in the natural world to understand how something works to tell a story. Why do you think more people don’t do it?
I think you’ve put your finger on it. This type of journalism does take time and editorial resources. I realize the question of resources is a problem nowadays. However, with some exceptions, I don’t think this stuff was happening to a great extent in the golden days, when there were brimming science sections and generous editorial budgets.
What I think explains it, as you said, is a question of mindset. I think for most science journalists, their model of journalism is explanatory. It’s taking the arcane world of the high priests and priestesses of science and translating what they do into language the ordinary mortal can understand. And I think that’s incredibly valuable and very important if we’re to have an informed society. But it is a different mindset from thinking that part of your job is to keep an eye on these guys and check that science isn’t being used and abused, that there isn’t corruption or fraud. And once you get into that mindset, you’re going to approach things differently. I’d argue that science journalists who have that mindset and wed it to what their training would allow them to do, in terms of data analysis and even studies done as part of the story, it can be very powerful.
It does seem a shame that many who are well-suited to this type of reporting aren’t interested in it. But what about journalists who don’t have a science background and might be intimidated by collecting data and then figuring out what to do with it? What words of wisdom can you share with them?
Whether or not you have training in the scientific method, you should be really aware of the danger of running with scissors. What you don’t want to do is flawed analyses. Unless you are absolutely on top of the method you’re using and really, really know you understand what you’re doing, you want to be taking expert advice.
But I don’t think this is fundamentally different from the rest of what we do. As science journalists we comment on papers that have conclusions based on analyses. If we’re doing our job properly, we have to work out whether it was the right way to do it. We do that by talking to independent sources. If we’re not being appropriately critical, questioning the methods of those we’re writing about, then that’s a problem as well.
But in terms of where do you learn the skills if you don’t have the training already, I’d go back to IRE, which is a fantastically training-centered and professional-development-centered organization. If you want to immerse yourself in this stuff and get a hothouse introduction to it in a very friendly and collegiate environment, you can do no better than to go to the annual IRE [and NICAR, National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting] meeting, which is in Baltimore in February. The whole meeting is devoted to teaching skills and data analysis in journalism, from knowing how to use a spreadsheet and database work, through geographic information systems and statistical analysis, and even coding to do data analysis. If you think you might be interested in this stuff, come along, I’ll see you there!
I give a talk with a slide on exactly that point. I think journalism is all about questions. You don’t typically start a story by aimlessly phoning up sources to shoot the breeze. Stories start because there’s a question. Somebody, somewhere along the line had a question. If you’re doing enterprise scientific journalism, you’re starting with questions about what’s going on in the world. If you’re not in the data state of mind, you’ll think about who you can speak to. And you still absolutely need your human sources to negotiate what might initially be an unfamiliar landscape. But if you’re thinking about data, it’s not just who can I speak to about this, it’s what sources of information are available that I might be able to interview.
I talk about interviewing data because I think that’s a really good way to think about it. Data can give you answers if you know what sorts of questions to ask. It’s adding that string to your bow, saying not only can I ask a bunch of experts what they think about an issue, but how can I start poking into the information itself and seeing what it says. You may think, well, the experts have been all over it, they know everything. But they’re not necessarily asking the questions that your readers might want to know the answer to. It’s realizing that there are other ways of reporting a story and other ways of asking and answering questions that center around data, which may just be sitting there for you to download or may require you to go out and collect. And that’s the only way certain stories are going to come out.
What are particularly good examples of this type of reporting?
USA Today did an interesting series some years back called “The Smokestack Effect” that looked at what kids are breathing in school. Are there worrying levels of air pollution in the environment in which our kids are being educated, and if so what can we do about that? I thought it had an interesting approach. I don’t think there have been major criticisms of the methods and it certainly won some major awards. They did a couple of things. They employed a model of the distribution of air pollution used by the Environmental Protection Agency, and they also did some of their own air pollution monitoring by setting up sensors near schools and looked at the results. There was a whole bunch of conventional reporting around that but the story wouldn’t have been there without those two key bits of data analysis. Also, they didn’t march in blindly and start using a model, they got expert help. I think it’s a neat example of the sort of thing you could do, but it’s a really, really big project.
But these things don’t need to be huge. I’m not claiming that I’ve done anything particularly earth shattering but there’s one example of a story that came up only because I was in a data state of mind. It was an online news story, fairly quick turnaround. I looked at two genome scan companies, one of the surviving companies has been in the news lately, 23andMe, and the other main one at the time, deCODEme. I had my genome done. That cost a bit of money but once I got the scans, I got story ideas just from playing around with the data.
I realized that one of the companies, deCODEme, seemed to be giving a really weird readout for my mitochondrial DNA. I couldn’t make sense of it. That was when the data was presented in a “genome browser” online. I downloaded the data from both companies and matched up the same mitochondrial markers – so there’s some database work there. It became apparent from the downloaded data, which was consistent across the two companies, that something was going on with the display online. I ended up with an annotated spreadsheet showing that there was a screw-up with what was presented online from deCODEme. It turns out it was a software bug, which raises some interesting issues about IT in genomics and the future of medicine. There was no harm done in this case. It just looked like, as I put it in the story, nonhuman DNA. But as we move toward personalized medicine, we don’t want our doctor prescribing drugs based on errors thrown up by software bugs. So there’s a story to write. But it only happened because I was in a data state of mind. It’s the type of story I think science journalists ought to be doing.
Final thoughts on why science journalists should give “scientific” journalism a try?
Why do I do what I do? I really like science. I always loved designing experiments and doing data analysis, and the writing up part – which is probably true of a lot of science journalists. What’s also probably true is that you get out of science because you don’t want to be one of three people in the world who knows everything there is to know on one little tiny bit of an intellectual enterprise. I want to ask questions across a much broader landscape, which I think is the motivation for a lot of science journalists.
So bringing in the type of approach to journalism that I’m talking about is like having the best of both worlds. I’m having the broad look at the world as a journalist, asking the questions I’d always wanted to ask, which for me is fun and what I used to really like about being a scientist. I can do both. Why wouldn’t you do that?