Follow the money, carefully

By Andrew Blok

Three journalists recently shared hard-won lessons from reporting on environmental regulation and enforcement.

Economic records are valuable, but be careful, they told a room full of journalists at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Each journalist had written a feature article using financial records and economic data to report stories:

Land use and the economy are central to each story. Sometimes the relevant data wasn’t easy for these reporters to come by. Often the players in the stories didn’t want that information to get out.

That’s where public records requests come in, they said. Certain public data is available upon request to anyone for a fee. In Texas, where two of the stories were set, public records requests are easy and a lot of information is available.

In other states, like Michigan, large portions of information (anything generated by the governor’s office or legislature) are closed to request, making it harder to find.

In these cases, it can be useful to know where to direct your energy.

The panelists offered a list of sources for doing this kind of reporting. Some are Texas specific but provide a starting point for finding your state’s parallel agency.

These public records can provide a useful paper trail—and defense—against another reality of this sort of reporting: litigation.

The panelists said they worried about getting sued for stories that cast oil and gas companies in a poor light. It’s an especially frightening prospect for smaller and nonprofit newsrooms, which might not have the capital or insurance to survive a protracted legal battle, they said.

Many of the high profile lawsuits against journalists and news organizations have come from individuals on the grounds of faulty reporting. For instance, in 2016 a jury awarded a dean at University of Virginia $3 million  from Rolling Stone and the journalist of a flawed story which portrayed her in a harmful and misleading way.

The prevalence and success of such lawsuits seem to be shifting, reported Paul Fahri in 2016 when he wrote that “there’s never been a better time to sue journalists.” Fahri, a media journalist at the Washington Post, is one of several journalists and media organizations not connected with this panel who have written about this trend. In a 2016 video about a different lawsuit, he said trials like these can have a chilling effect on journalists.

The message these lawsuits can send: “Do not mess with people who have the means and resources to come after you,” he said.

Throughout the session, the journalists stressed the importance of relying on records, checking with multiple sources or having outside experts gut-check reports when only one source is available.

Some emphasize the importance of keeping a record of your notes and interviews should anything be disputed later.

Financial records can provide a solid base for reporting on difficult or convoluted issues of resource extraction or environmental regulation enforcement, but they pose challenges, Collier said.

The information they hold can come in difficult-to-use formats. Collier, whose reporting relied on data about export, oil production, pollution, education and much more, recommends learning Microsoft Excel to help wade through the sheer volume of information.

What if you can’t get your hands on the reports to fill your spreadsheets? Collier suggests finding people.

She attended CERAWeek, a major annual conference for the energy industry, to gain access not to records, but to CEOs whom she’d ambush with questions, she said.

While economic records won’t replace reporting on the ground, they can certainly provide a strong foundation and mountains of supporting evidence for excellent reporting, the reporters said.

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