Guilty by Omission: Tristram Korten and FCIR Investigate What Florida’s DEP Leaves Out

It started off as a passing complaint from a former contractor with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; the word “climate change” was taboo. The contractor had been hired to write educational fact sheets about coral reefs, he told Tristram Korten, editor at the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.  But every time he referenced climate change, he was told to remove or alter the phrase.

Korten knew if the tip turned out to be true, it would invite an interesting story. How could a state like Florida, rich in biodiversity and threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather, be expected to protect its environment if a key agency could not address a major threat? Yet the whole story was based off a single source and as any journalist knows; that is simply not good enough. Korten needed more verification, but it would be a challenge. He’d have to prove a negative.

Did the Florida DEP really avoid the term “climate change?”

Korten and the FCIR’s investigation uncovered a major problem. Not only had the terms “climate change” and “global warming” dropped progressively out of public documents year after year, other agencies were boycotting the issue as well. It all seemed to coincide with the inauguration of new governor Rick Scott, who upon taking office in 2011, reorganized the DEP and appointed a new director.

Although there was no explicit order from Scott to the leaders of state agencies and Scott himself denied the claim, the findings kicked off an investigation that is still ongoing. Korten has reported omissions at the Department of Transportation, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Florida Department of Health.

How did he do it? In this case, there was no specific document to request, and no specific law to cite. Government officials refused to grant interviews; instead, Korten received short, dismissive email replies like “DEP does not have a policy on this.” Employees at state agencies were reluctant to talk, or insisted on remaining anonymous, for fear of losing their jobs.

Here are the tools and techniques Korten used to deal with those issues.

An email search. After filing a public records search for the information, Korten and his team employed a tightly controlled email search to look for explicit mentions of communications policies between agencies, or from agency leaders to employees. But the email search was kind of a needle-in-a-haystack approach, said Korten. He didn’t want to spend too much time on a fishing expedition through thousands of emails. However, his search did turn up one piece of evidence, a 2014 email from the Coastal office’s external affairs administrator to a regional administrator, telling him to avoid claiming “climate change” as a cause when he appeared in a National Geographic/Audubon documentary about sea-level rise. If using this approach, Korten advises journalists to request communications in their native electronic format to preserve the original text.

 

April 2014 email exchange between Florida DEP employees Michael Shirley, a regional administrator, and  Pamela King Phillips, the coastal office’s external affairs administrator. Story by Tristram Korten and fcir.org.

April 2014 email exchange between Florida DEP employees Michael Shirley, a regional administrator, and
Pamela King Phillips, the coastal office’s external affairs administrator. Story by Tristram Korten and fcir.org.

Linked In: Linked In is a great tool for finding current and former employees with various agencies. Because many current employees didn’t want to go on record for this story, Korten relied on finding former employees with valuable insight but no fear of retaliation. The best parts about this social media tool are being able to search by dates employed, and to see connections related to you or to other sources. Many ex-employees still balk at going on the record, however. Journalists can find and contact academics, contractors, lobbyists, and scientists with connections at this agency for more honest insight.

korten2

Linked In can be an invaluable tool in locating and connecting with sources.

Annual Publications and Reports. Korten and his team obtained the yearly DEP reports from 2010 (the year before Scott took office) up until 2015. This was an easy and convenient way to analyze the department’s priorities over time; as most agencies post their annual reports online for the general public. And there’s a simple technology that makes sifting through a hundred pages of pdf document feasible in minutes: the Ctrl + F (or find) function. Korten and his team ran a keyword analysis of PDF files on DEP’s public website — which included reports, agendas, correspondence and other communications. The result was a noticeable difference over the years, 209 instances in 20 documents in 2010 declined to only 34 occurrences in 2014. And Korten said most of the 2014 instances were merely references to older documents. Korten also suggests getting original drafts of the reports, if freedom of information laws allow. This way, you can analyze what edits were made, including erroneous omissions or rewordings.

Number of "climate change" references in Florida DEP reports, data collected by fcir.org

Number of “climate change” references in Florida DEP reports, data collected by fcir.org

Interviews, interviews, interviews. It’s crucial to attempt to get both sides of the story, even if one side refuses to talk. In Korten’s case, the lack of response from agency officials spoke volumes. And every example of censorship provided by an ex-employee served to strengthen the original tip. Korten said most of his networking took place in the state capital, Tallahassee, right at the heart of the government activity.

What’s next?

Korten is most anxious to see how his story and investigation will lead to the reintroduction of “climate change” into the public sphere. He wonders if the “ban” has impaired scientists’ and officials’ ability to carry out their jobs, and to what extent the former administration’s initiatives and laws have been dismantled. He’s hopeful for the future, now that the problem has been exposed.

“The response from inside the DEP was that people, many of whom were scientists, were frustrated with this taboo,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to put that restriction back on them.”

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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