Free public data: The lifeblood of press freedom

Celebrating World Press Freedom Day

May 3, 2019

When I teach workshops for international journalists, they come away astonished by how much freedom American journalists have to find and report information.

I say that fully recognizing that it is a daily slog for journalists to uncover what should be open records and routine disclosures.

Our international colleagues usually say something to the effect of “Wow, I bet American journalists use these records all the time,” and I respond, “Sadly, they don’t. Most journalists rarely file Freedom of Information requests and media companies are reluctant to call in the lawyers to push for more open access.” One journalist from an authoritarian country responded, “A journalist who doesn’t use their freedom of information is not any better off than one who can’t.”

With that prelude, I offer some rich and, I hope, useful places to find information to unlock and solidify your reporting. Start wide and large with Google, but learn how to use it in a much more sophisticated way than entering a word in the search bar. Learn how to use “allin” search phrases as well as “related” and “cache” searches.

Then there is Data.gov, the mother of government data sites. It is also a portal to local data sites. The site provides information on subjects like climate. You can “find data and resources related to coastal floodingfood resiliencewaterecosystem vulnerability, human health, energy infrastructure, transportation, and the Arctic region.”

Did you know you can see the real-time American electrical grid?

 

NICAR and IRE

 

For goodness sake, pay your dues and become a member of the Investigative Reports and Editors. For the cost of your dues, you can download tons of databases from NICAR, the National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting. The datasets range from boating accidents to bad bridges. They have data on small business loans and trucking accidents.

You can hire NICAR to clean and analyze datasets, too. They can also create maps with your data.

IRE has tip sheets from each national convention.

IRE’s Extra Extra is a constantly updated post of cool new investigations from around America.

For educators, there is a whole section dedicated to teaching investigative reporting.

 

Corporations and business

 

SEC.gov is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s website that gives you access to the reports that publicly traded corporations (companies that sell stock) file. The filings include everything from bulky annual reports that include a wide range of information including executive compensation to profits, losses and plans. The website also houses quarterly corporate filings and more routine disclosures. You will also find SEC court actions and administrative actions relating to securities, crowdfunding, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (which forbids bribes to international persons to land business) and even cybersecurity.

Trade (importing and exporting) is such a big story that goes largely undercovered by local news.  And yet it affects your reader/viewers/listeners in profoundly personal ways, from their employment to what they pay for goods and services.  Here is an overview page (not government source).

It is rich, specific and useful. You can track, country by country, where they import from and sell to, and see the products that are most important in a visual, not just statistical, way.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census also provide trade data.

Get local on trade: U.S. Exports by Metropolitan Area, Fourth Quarter 2018

 

Politics

 

FEC.gov is the website of the Federal Election Commission that oversees elections to federal offices. Here you will find money raised, money spent, cash on hand and debt filings. There are lots of interesting subdirectories like loans to campaigns and campaign finance filings going back to 1976.

Campaign spending can get really interesting when the person doing the spending is no longer in office or is even dead. See the “Zombie campaigns” investigation. 

OpenSecrets.org is a place you can go to make sense of the FEC documents. This site makes FEC information easier to search and sort, including campaign disclosures, contributions and spending. OpenSecrets also makes it easy to see contributions by geography and interest group. I find the Dark Money and PAC sections to be especially interesting as you try to navigate who is behind ads, especially attack ads.

VoteSmart.org makes it easy to find speeches and position papers for federal candidates.

Congress.gov is a robust website that lets you track the legislative branch. You can see the House and Senate calendars, monitor the progress (or lack of progress) of bills — and one of the things I like is to enter in a search word in the dialogue box and find pending, passed or failed legislation that had something to do with the issue I’m interested in. For example, I put in the word “horses” and bingo, the results pop up for legislation having to do with wild horses, horse abuse and horse racing.

You can also search the U.S. Code, and very quickly run through the Federal Register by department.

 

Government contracts

 

Last year, the federal government spent more than $4 trillion. You can see the contracts here. You can filter by contractor, by state, by congressional district and you can see where the spending goes — overseas, for example. You can see who the biggest contractors are in your area and what work they are doing. I bet you will be surprised. The number of defense contractors alone will shock you because a lot of the work is not by the big guys. It is the uniform makers and the people who make the medals for the military and ammo manufacturers and paper suppliers and copy machine repairmen who are your neighbors.

NICAR advises journalists, “The Federal Procurement Data System, maintained by the U.S. General Services Administration through a private contractor, includes transaction-by-transaction records related to federal contracts. The database was substantially changed from FY2003. In the past, only transactions of more than $25,000 were included.”

For just a wide general search, USASpending.gov.

Search a vendor here.

To download the data by year, go here.

Governments are always buying stuff and hiring services. Here is one place you can see what they are buying.

What is your city trying to purchase? GovQuote is a website that tracks requests for bids for some of the oddest sounding stuff.

ProPublica wrote a tight tutorial on how to search contracts. Be especially attentive to “no-bid” contracts.

 

Charities

 

Any non-profit (except churches) that takes in $25,000 a year or more has to file an I-990 tax form. It is an open record. Sometimes you will find that form filed at the local and state level but it is a federal document. Look at the income, spending and assets. Look at how much of the spending goes to “program expenses” but keep in mind that sometimes charities call mailings and fundraising part of their programming. It is especially true for the worst charities that sometimes have the words “cancer, police, children” in them.  The I-990 filings are often way behind the calendar.

IRS’ Charity search site is a place to start.

Guidestar makes it easy to search for a charity’s I-990 form and make sense of it.


RELATED: Poynter supports World Press Freedom. Here’s how you can, too.


 

Environment

 

The EPA’s website is big and deep and generally speaks to issues of air, water and soil quality. On the (right-hand side) front page you can look at the EPA’s page about every state or you can put in your zip code and it will pull up issues relating to your locale.

The EPA’s Superfund site is dedicated to the worst pollution messes and what, if anything, is being done about them.

The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) site is a place where you can see who is releasing what toxins into the air, soil and water. The list is updated every year. Facilities with 10 or more full-time employees that process more than 25,000 pounds in aggregate, or use greater than 10,000 pounds of any one TRI chemical, are required to report releases annually. The TRI data is “self-reported” meaning EPA does not validate the data.

This is a site by the Department of Health and Human Services.

EPA enforcement can point you to local stories fast. Keep in mind that even though an agency may fine a company, the real question is how much does that company actually pay? Fines can be negotiated, similar to plea bargains and sometimes end up amounting to a fraction of the original fine. So, follow up on announcements of big fines.

 

Health

 

CDC.gov is like a superstore for health data and ideas. It always has the big topical issue on the front page, such as the measles outbreak. But go deeper and you will find tons of data collections.

CDC’s vital signs is often an interesting stop. For example, it examines the rise in U.S. suicides and staph infections.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is a place where you can find out who is dying from what disease. There is a brand new study about binge drinking among pregnant women and how effective was last year’s flu shot?  It is the same place where, last week, I read a new report about declining tobacco use among high school and middle school students but vaping is way, way up, wiping out all of the progress against tobacco.

CDC also has vital statistics for states and territories.

Injuries, homicides and suicide data is stored here.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is constantly tracking public attitudes about health and insurance. Kaiser Health News is a collection of daily health-related stories. Don’t miss the KHN investigations page and the page on health laws which are both local and federal issues.

The Association of Health Care Journalists website is a must-see to stay on top of the best reporting work in this area. I love their “shared wisdom” section where journalists share their best sources on topics. They also have a “how I did it” feature written by great reporters who have done important work.

HospitalInspections.org is run by the Association of Health Care Journalists and you can use it to zero in on your local hospitals. The site explains, “This site includes details about deficiencies cited during complaint inspections at acute-care, critical access or psychiatric hospitals throughout the United States since Jan. 1, 2011. It does not include results of routine inspections or those of long-term care hospitals. It also does not include hospital responses to deficiencies cited during inspections. Those can be obtained by filing a request with a hospital or the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).”  Make sure you read the links on the top right side of the page that help you to make sense of the data you find in the reports.

Hospitalfinances.org is also run by the Association of Health Care Journalists. This site lets you peek into the finances of “non-profit” hospitals to find out just how non- profit they are. The website uses the same I-990s that other charities file. The website explains, “The search results focus on key 990 elements. It includes basic finances, compensation of top executives, community benefits and other details. The data come from electronic filings that the hospitals send to the IRS. Our presentation does not include a complete copy of the 990, which can be requested from the hospital.”


RELATED: An interview with NBC’s Lester Holt about press freedoms


 

Crime and punishment

 

The Marshall Project does a fantastic job covering issues of crime and punishment. Their daily email is loaded with story ideas. 

The Vera Institute for crime and justice is a partner with Poynter on our Covering Jails workshops and I have found them to be a vital source of original data on jails and prisons. They have 55 years of research on everything from who is in jail and prison to arrest patterns.  Their experts are press-friendly.

The Department of Justice’s Uniform Crime Report is a starting place on a lot of topics ranging from hate crimes to use of force data (which only started being collected in 2017.) The Crime Data Explorer is one way to navigate the big databases, or you can turn to NICAR (mentioned above) to help you focus on what you are looking for. They slice the UCR really well and know the pitfalls of using that data, such as trying to compare one jurisdiction to another. Once in a while definitions of certain crimes change, which can throw comparisons off.

Reported crime since 1960 reported by:

Also, DOJ provides:

 


RELATED: Did MSNBC do the right thing by calling out lies during Barr testimony?


 

 

Education

The National Center for Education Statistics is one place to start when you are covering education.  Princeton University’s library system collects historical data.

The Condition of Education report is mandated by Congress to be published every year. You will learn about how many kids can access the internet, the growth of charter schools, public and private school enrollment, reading performance, school dropout/completion rates and college enrollment figures.

The Digest of Educational Statistics is also a big volume of stats from the federal government. But here is a really cool tool that allows you get to extremely local and zero in on every individual school, public and private.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is my go-to place to keep up with what is happening in college circles. A lot of their content is behind a paywall but some isn’t.

 

Reporter tricks

When big news is breaking and I think I am behind, I put the phrase “I am a journalist” into Tweetdeck and watch for what other reporters are trying to get permission to use.

Datawrapper is a free and for-pay site that makes it easy to chart and embed data. Just import the data from Excel or Google Spreadsheets — make sure you have some sort of consistent geolocator in the file so it will know where to put the data on the map. GitHub is also a stop you should make. “GitHub is home to over 36 million developers working together to host and review code, manage projects, and build software together,” the site says.

Data Portals is a global database of databases on an interactable searchable map. Every time I go there I spend way more time than I should because I keep finding interesting stuff.

Here is how to turn Twitter and Tweetdeck into powerful search tools.

I find Governing magazine to be a non-stop source of story ideas. They cater to local and state government officials so it is a way for journalists to stay on top of the biggest issues that government officials worry about. They have a daily email that I don’t miss. It is a quick read.

 


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