Making Public Information Public

October 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

VPR Web Developer Sara Simon created @dirtywatervt to help bring information about sewage spills to the public.

VPR Web Developer Sara Simon created @dirtywatervt to help bring information about sewage spills to the public.

As digital reporter for Vermont Public Radio, one of the things I spend my time doing is checking a number of government websites for new story leads. It’s generally not rewarding work but on the occasions there’s something new to be found, it can make for some good scoops that don’t require well-placed sources or anonymous tips.

Vermont hospitals, for example, are inspected by the state of Vermont to ensure compliance with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services standards, and inspection reports are released online at the website of the relatively obscure Division of Licensing and Protection (within the Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living within the Agency of Human Services).

Those reports can contain important information, like the fact that a patient was killed by an accidental, nurse-administered ketamine overdose at the state’s largest hospital and the hospital took seven weeks to change problematic drug administration practices.

That story could’ve been written in the spring soon after the inspection report was posted online, but I wrote it in July because that’s when I happened to have time to check the website that keeps track of those reports. If you’ve been a reporter for any length of time, you probably have or have had a few favorite obscure government websites where you hunt for story leads or new filings.

But given that news reporters in Vermont (and in general) don’t tend to have much free time, it’s not good for our audience to have public information that depends on being “found” in order to become truly public.

It’s 2015. Let’s fix that.

Another site I frequently check is the state’s website that tracks sewage spills reported to environmental officials. Our web developer, Sara Simon, created a Twitter bot that checks that site twice per day and tweets about any new spills that have been reported. (Here’s her code.) I was interested in the tool as a reporter, because Twitter easily allows me to set up push notifications for any user I follow. With the bot, I know I don’t find out about a sewage spill more than half a day after it was reported.

The state-run page that shows Vermonters information about sewage spills is five links from the homepage of the Agency of Natural Resources, which runs it. If you think that doesn’t sound too deeply buried, I encourage you to try to find recently reported sewage spills by clicking from the homepage. (Go ahead. This page won’t get lost.)

The agency is required by law to post public notice of sewage spills, but a public notice is only worth anything if the public notices. Now, instead of actively seeking out information that is difficult to find and only sometimes new, people can simply follow a Twitter account that only provides information if it’s new.

But you don’t have to code a public-information-spewing bot in order to free up buried information. Just keep in mind that most people probably don’t spend their days looking for the things we spend our days looking for, and it’s easier than it’s ever been to share those things with the public and other reporters.

When I was checking through the hospital inspection report website earlier this month and saw that a small hospital had received one violation

Last week, I saw this story from VTDigger that mentioned that same report in its lede. Reporter Erin Mansfield wrote a story that put the report in the context of a statewide issue, including interviews with top officials and links for deeper reading (VTDigger has been doing a great job covering the state’s mental health system this summer). The story did a great job using public information as a launch point for a wider story – it provided a great example of public service journalism that uses public documents in context to make it both more powerful and more informative for the public.

I tweeted the story, and shortly after got a nice note from Erin (who told me I could share it here):

Wanted to let you know that I found that report based on your tweet. I didn’t end up citing you because I couldn’t find an article on VPR to link to.

Erin didn’t link to VPR’s coverage of the report because there wasn’t any – beyond my single tweet. VPR got scooped on a good story because of my tweet, and that’s great.

Erin’s story was well-done with a bunch of new information and reporting, and it found a far wider audience than my tweet and the obscure state website the report was. VPR didn’t publish the story, sure, but the public still knows about the issue. The contribution from our newsroom was minor but important: a lead. (Not a lede. That was Erin’s.)

On pledge drives, I often talk about how peculiar the public media business model is: “We give it away and hope people value it enough to support us.”

We can be more creative about what the “it” of that sentence really is. It doesn’t have to be fully digested stories, it doesn’t have to be at our website and it doesn’t have to be coming out of a broadcast tower. It is information. This doesn’t mean we should start ignoring journalism or journalistic principles by tweeting PDFs all day without doing interviews or going into the field, but it might mean reporters being more generous about favorite obscure website for story leads, or making Twitter bots that make the information on your favorite obscure website for story leads less… obscure.

The point is: We’re working towards a more informed public. There are more members of the public and more sources of public information online than ever before. The problem isn’t that the information is lacking, it’s that there’s no facilitator bringing it to the public where they are. Serving in that role doesn’t always have to be traditional journalism, but it’s almost always a journalistic act.

Talking with NCPR About Tuberculosis in Vermont

February 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been covering an outbreak of Tuberculosis at Charlotte Central School, and recently spoke with North Country Radio’s Brian Mann about what’s going on and how officials are handling it.

After we spoke, the Vermont Department of Health announced that eight more students at the school tested positive for TB after the initial round of testing.

Is ‘Serial’ Journalism?

December 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

In a word: Yes.

(Note: If you don’t know what Serial is – first of all welcome to the Internet – and come back in 10 hours when you’ve finished listening.)

I’m putting this here because I think Serial’s success has perked up a lot of journalists’ ears (especially if they are, like me, in radio) and made them think about what they can take from Serial and apply to their own work.

Media critic (and my former professor) Dan Kennedy posted a commentary on his blog by journalist Brian C. Jones that makes an interesting argument that Serial isn’t journalism because it launched before the journalist involved – This American Life’s Sarah Koenig – knew what the outcome would be.

My objection is that when the reporting phase is exhausted, it’s crucial to understand what kind of a story it is, and maybe whether it is a story at all. At the very least, the writer has to be honest with listeners as to the “why” of the story.

Jones’ problem, he writes, is that Koenig is one episode away from the conclusion of her look into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and it seems likely she won’t have a “He did it!” or “He’s innocent!” conclusion to cap it all off. Not doing so, he argues, just causes a lot of harm to everyone involved in the case and doesn’t really accomplish anything. Therefore, he says, it’s voyeurism and not journalism.

Last week Koenig read from a letter from the defendant saying that his psyche has been bruised by her persistent questioning of his character. I imagine some prosecutors, cops and others whose work has been scrutinized feel the same.

I disagree with the argument that this disqualifies Serial from being journalism.

While I have sympathy for the family of the victim and the defendant with respect to the pain of being in the spotlight, I think Jones’ criticism is off the mark. To condemn a journalist for scrutinizing the work of police and prosecutor, and for the discomfort that’s caused, is to condemn accountability journalism. Accountability journalism is never comfortable when done well, and it shouldn’t have to be. Public officials – both the law and society in general agree – are and should be subject to greater scrutiny.

As to the harm caused to Adnan by digging into this case – Jones is right, it must be difficult. But (guilty or not) he was convicted of killing a girl. Is that not more harmful to his reputation or emotional health than anything Koenig ever could do? Does the outcome of her reporting (or lack thereof) somehow retroactively change the calculus here?

Journalists spend every day asking difficult questions and making people uncomfortable. Much of the time, especially for investigative journalists, this never pans out. That’s okay. But is it suddenly not journalistic work if they then publish their findings, painstakingly taking the time to note all the things they’re not sure about.

The only real difference between investigative reporting and what Koenig has done here is that the things that don’t pan out generally don’t go public, because it would require far too much ink or air time or pixels to say “we checked this out and there are a bunch of caveats but we still have questions.” But this is a podcast dedicated to exactly that, and Koenig openly acknowledges the weaknesses in what she’s found as well as the emotional difficulty involved in this digging – the criticism mentions Koenig’s own disclosure as evidence against her.

To say it’s not journalism because there isn’t a clear “why” is overly simplistic. Journalism is about creating a more informed public and moving conversations forward, and Koenig has done that.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Jones.

Stories of Addiction

June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

In my role as digital reporter for Vermont Public Radio, I’ve been working to covering addiction in Vermont, which has garnered national attention since Governor Peter Shumlin’s State of the State speech was devoted entirely to opiate addiction.

At VPR, I’ve covered the issue from the angle of treatment, statistical reporting, and how the state’s drug economy is sometimes fueled by illegal firearms trafficking (That story was picked up by NPR).

Most recently, I’ve been focused on the impacts of addiction on the families and friends of addicts.

Brennan Dekeersgieter died of a heroin overdose in the spring of 2013, and his family has been trying to come to grips with the loss for more than a year. I spoke with his parents, Robert and Margery, and his siblings Caitlin and Colin about Brennan and about how they think about him in his absence, and how they move forward. This is their story.

On a reporting trip covering one of these stories with VPR’s digital producer, Angela Evancie, we were talking about the fact that many drug-related deaths in Vermont communities exist without memorials. Despite this, their loved ones and friends may see a place or a thing, or hear a song, or smell a smell, and think immediately of their loss. In this way, addiction’s effects are extremely widespread in Vermont.

In an effort to explore and understand the way addiction effects Vermont, Angela and I worked with VPR Web Developer Matt Parrilla, News Director John Dillon, and Director of Digital Services Jonathan Butler to create Traces.

From the page (which you should check out, because Matt did an amazing job with it):

Drug addiction affects many in our community. Whether you’ve lost a family member to a drug overdose, lost touch with a friend who uses, or are fighting your own addiction, daily reminders—objects, places, people—can be anywhere. Traces is a collection of those reminders and the memories they evoke.

Traces was also featured in the public media trade publication, Current. From that article:

The project, titled Traces, grew out of a reporting project between VPR web producer Angela Evancie and reporter Taylor Dobbs. From November to February, the team visited small towns in southern Vermont to report on the intersection of drug possession and gun ownership in the state. Vermont has both lax gun laws and a high rate of addiction to opiates, meth and other substances, fostering an illicit market in which people trade guns for drugs, Evancie said.

“We found ourselves going to a lot of motel parking lots and gun stores around town and taking pictures and videos of these empty spaces,” she said. “We knew that things had happened there and we knew that, for certain people in town, these places had probably surfaced memories.”

Using Data to Investigate

April 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Start with data:

New job: VPR Digital Reporter

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the news team at Vermont Public Radio as their digital reporter.

As news consumers move online for their content, many organizations, including VPR, have made a great effort to create robust and user-friendly web outlets. At VPR, they decided the next step was to hire a reporter to focus on digital-first news stories. That means the majority of my work will be published online, either in collaboration with VPR’s experienced  radio reporters or based on my own original reporting in the Chittenden County area.

I have long admired VPR’s dedication to excellence in journalism and commitment to the exciting developments in digital journalism, and I’m thrilled to be joining them in their efforts in early September.

“Filling the News Gap” Panel Discussion

June 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

I participated in a panel discussion last month about the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, sponsored by Cambridge Community Television. Below is a video of the discussion, via CCTV:


Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Covering Chaos from Cambridge Community Television on Vimeo.


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