Posts Tagged ‘ProPublica’


The flow of information: Reporting on water in the west

Abrahm Lustgarten, an energy and environment reporter at ProPublica, had a seat right on the battle lines of the Western Water Wars. Having previously lived in a small town on the Colorado River, he developed an awareness of the water scarcity problem, especially as the drought got worse.  After relocating to California, Lustgarten sought to bring his experience and long-standing interest in the topic to an investigative piece focused on the importance of water in the West.

Abrahm Lustgarten of Propublica covers energy, environment, and most recently, the water wars in the Western U.S.

Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica covers energy, environment, and most recently, the water wars in the Western U.S.

His reporting led to a nine-part series called “Killing the Colorado,” which ran from May to July this year, and focused not only on the Centennial state but on issues in Arizona, Nevada (Las Vegas), and California. Lustgarten delved into federal subsidies for cotton under the Farm Bill, pollution problems at the Navajo Generation Station,  and a controversial “use it or lose it” law further enabling the misuse of water. Reporting the story was not easy; Lustgarten spent more than a year and a half collecting and requesting information, and learning an extensive amount about the history and laws surrounding water crises. “It was an enormous amount of information, like getting an informal master’s degree,” Lustgarten said.

The story began with “Holy Crop,” an in-depth look into how federal subsidies of cotton under the Farm Bill leads to water shortages, as the crop needs billions of gallons of water to be grown. Lustgarten did “everything under the sun” to obtain public records for the piece, he said, drawing upon court documents, litigation cases, land ownership deeds, peer review studies, and economic reporting under the Farm Bill. It was the latter documents that posed the greatest challenge, Lustgarten said. He filed a FOIA request to solicit records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the Farm Bill and subsidy program, and waited more than 8 months to receive the information – and incomplete information at that.

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The USDA doesn’t release information that the public actually wants to know, said Lustgarten. His reports came back with generalized info about the number of subsidies per town and the amounts granted, but no information about the individuals who received the money. It was, all-in-all, a FOIA failure, according to Lustgarten. The most recent Farm Bill allowed USDA to withhold information, and there wasn’t enough time to take them to court to get the necessary documents. It’s not an unprecedented response from the USDA: the Farm Service Agency denies more FOIA requests than any other segment of the department (about ½ of the department’s total denials), basing most on confidential, personnel, and medical records exemptions.

Lustgarten also reached out to agencies on the state level, but ran into similar issues. In California, a state law is designed to protect utility customers, by keeping the identity of water users secret and collection info on irrigation water districts only, not the users (i.e. people and companies) who get the water. But the documents were not where the real story was. In this case, going into the field and engaging in face-to-face interviews proved most important.

Lustgarten mapped out 161,000 acres of cotton fields in Arizona, www.propublica.org

Lustgarten mapped out 161,000 acres of cotton fields in Arizona, www.propublica.org

“These stories are, in the end, analysis,” Lustgarten said. “You’ve got to do the deep reporting, and understand the issue or else your story will just be a superficial version. Ask yourself what you personally think about the story, and use that analysis rather than just direct information you are told.” For example, Lustgarten said, once he found out how water law tells farmers to use their resources in a way that is not always sustainable, he exercised his own judgement. He returned to his sources, and asked them, “If the law allowed you to use less water, would you?” Their affirmative answers added yet another layer of depth to the story.

The problem with analysis is that the readers don’t always agree with the journalist’s point of view. For the most part, Lustgarten’s story received great public feedback, with readers welcoming a new and different perspective and a solutions-based story. However, other readers found fault with Lustgarten’s analysis, some arguing cotton is less water-intensive than Lustgarten claimed, others pointing out discrepancies between the Arizona and California laws discussed in the story.

 

www.propublica.org

www.propublica.org

However, Lustgarten’s story did call attention to a growing problem, and invite discussion and debate in the community.  “Nothing is more important than water,” Lustgarten said, and finally this underappreciated resource, vital for the economy, environment, and human health, was brought into the spotlight. Here are couple methods Lustgarten used to make his story stand out.

Historical background

Lustgarten drew on the introduction and implementation of the Farm Bill over time to explain his story, and touched upon the history of the region’s 15-year-drought and environmental dry spell. He researched early Arizona township organizations and supply and demand of resources during wartime, alluding to Civil War practices and an 150-year-old report to Congress by John Wesley Powell.

Public documents

Lustgarten worked with over twenty groups, including state and federal agencies; from the California and Arizona Departments of Water Resources to the National Weather Service and Environmental Protection Agency. In some cases, the information took up to three years to obtain. The main story these documents told were about money, Lustgarten said, the irony of the government charging individuals and companies less to use more water. To figure out what documents are best suited for the story, Lustgarten said he relied on government experts or lawyers, asking them what kind of state and federal documents were kept related to his topic of interest, and what the specific title and code of the document would be. He talked with FOIA officers at EPA and USDA, trying to identify which records would be most beneficial.

One-on-one reporting

Lustgarten can’t stress the human factor of investigative reporting enough. His one-on-one encounters with farmers, government officials (like the “Water Witch” of Las Vegas) and other members of the community assign a human face to the numbers behind the documents. And the natural landscape has a kind of emotional quality as well, as photographer Michael Friberg brought out in a series “A Wonder in Decline: The Disappearing Lake Powell in Pictures.”

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The short story

ProPublica compiled the main points from the series into a notecard-guide, shareable via social media. The shortened stories are posed as a solution-based Q&A, identifying the problems and using graphics, maps, and charts to illustrate statistics. The notecards are an informative way to draw in an audience with perhaps less time or knowledge to dedicate to the full series. Instead of cutting the reporting short, the “Need to Know” article caters to a larger audience who might not have followed the entire series. Most importantly, the notecards point to various solutions for the readers to deliberate amongst each other. And that is how these stories invite and inspire change.

Have you dealt with drought or reported on the water wars? Email amayrianne@spj.org or tweet @amayrianne about your experience.

Must read FOI stories – 7/07/14

Every week I’ll be doing a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me (Missed last week because of 4th of July, so you’re getting a double dose this week.)

  • No moving targets in FOIA denials: Missouri judge rules that government agencies cannot give a different exemption than the original one used to deny the FOIA request after being sued.
  • Judicial Watch, a government accountability group, filed a legal motion about the “lost emails” of ex-IRS official Lois Learner.
  • FOIA suffers setback in South Carolina at the hands of the legislature and Supreme Court, which recently ruled that public bodies don’t have to issue agendas for regularly scheduled meetings.
  •  Massachusetts SWAT team claims they’re immune from public records requests, ACLU sues.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

FOI Daily Dose: NSA denies reporter’s FOIA request, open-data company to expand government data trove

NSA denies ProPublica reporter’s FOIA request for his own records

Jeff Larson of ProPublica filed a freedom of information request with the National Security Agency (NSA) asking for any personal data the agency collected about him, and his request was denied, according to ProPublica.

Larson filed the request on June 13, shortly after the first of the NSA’s mass surveillance systems was unveiled on June 6. He received a letter from the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Pamela Phillips on June 24 neither confirming nor denying that the agency had his metadata and warning him any response could “allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.”

In the letter (see here), Phillips cites section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA’s surveillance in the interest of national security and tells Larson granting his request would compromise classified information (the existence or non-existence of such metadata).

Ultimately, Larson concluded he would have to file a lawsuit if he actually wanted to see his records. While he was in touch with the NSA, he learned that their FOIA office has received more than 1,000 information requests since June 7 and hasn’t approved any Privacy Act requests for metadata, according to ProPublica.

“We do not search operational records on specific individuals,” Phillips told Larson.

Open-data company raises money to expand government data trove

An open-data cloud software company that plans to put the NSA’s data online and analyze it raised $18 million to share more government information with the general public, according to TechCrunch.

The Seattle-based Socrata consumerizes “untapped” government data by putting it into accessible and usable forms for citizens, developers and government employees. The funding came from OpenView Venture Partners, Morgenthaler Ventures and Frazier Technology Partners, and as part of the deal,  Scott Maxwell of OpenView will join Socrata’s board.

Along with hiring more staff, the company said it will use its new funds to expand its cloud infrastructure and develop portals and apps it calls “the next wave of open data and government performance innovations.” One of Socrata’s most recent apps called GovStat allows government agencies to set goals and measure their impact against data. GeekWire said many cities are already using Socrata for everything from compiling restaurant inspection data to election results and voter information.

TechCrunch asked Socrata about its plans for the NSA’s data, and Socrata said it has a platform “designed to help put the government online to see what it is doing with the data and what can be built from it.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Release of pricey Palin e-mails, oversight for Seattle schools

Two years later, Alaska to release 24,000 pages of Palin e-mails

It took more than two years, but the Associated Press, CNN, Andree McLeod of Anchorage and others will finally get the gubernatorial e-mails they wanted.

The requests from individuals and news outlets for Palin’s e-mails, made when she was running for vice president, will be honored by the state of Alaska soon.

The 24,000 pages are to be sent for copying this week and will then be mailed to the requesters.

But there’s a catch: 2,415 pages will be withheld due to exemptions from the state’s disclosure laws. And some of those that are released include an as-yet-unknown number of redactions.

The price for the long-overdue records release: $725.97 for copying fees, plus the cost of shipping about five boxes of the records at 55 pounds per box, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

The reasons for the two-year records delay, according to state officials, were that the state was unprepared for such a huge request for electronic data and that Palin’s use of a Yahoo account for business matters further complicated the process.

But it won’t just be the requesters who get to see the Palin e-mails. MSNBC.com, ProPublica and Mother Jones plan to publish the 24,000-plus pages in a searchable online archive.

Scandal sparks plans for Seattle school watchdog

There’s nothing like a scandal to drum up support for more official oversight.

A financial quagmire over a business development program resulted in the sacking of a superintendent and, now, a watchdog plan for Seattle Public Schools.

Seattle’s city council passed a measure Tuesday for the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to create a district program for ethics and whistleblower protection.

The program will last until 2012, and hopefully beyond.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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