BY DANIEL PEARL FELLOW SHERIF TAREK
The more open public records are, the easier it is for journalists to produce good stories.
Statistics and numbers are crucially important to many stories.
To prove that a crime rate has soared, for instance, or a certain type of bridge is prone to collapse, or that athletes are among the highest earners, a journalist can analyze relevant and reliable data and insert statistics in the article.
Or, such statistics and numbers could be a story on their own: an unprecedented surge in the HIV positive cases; or a dramatic decrease in people without medical insurance.
A fundamental part of journalism is all about numbers.
Thanks to a fairly transparent information access system available to everyone online, being a journalist in the U.S. who focuses on domestic affairs could be easier and smoother than counterparts in other countries, where records are relatively obscure, or don’t even exist.
The openness of public records varies from one country to another. It’s never unlimitedly open or completely unavailable. Degrees of trustworthiness of these records are another issue.
Information access has been common in the U.S. for decades. Not only journalists, but citizens in general, are fully aware of their right to know and the utmost importance of that right, which they exercise every day, whether for personal or professional purposes.
Records in the U.S. are available, consistent, and unfailing, at least in many cases. However, some information is easier to access than others.
For instance, while working on a story with a colleague for the L.A. Times about a female-only veteran shelter, some facts were hard to find or verify. Was it the first women-only veteran shelter? How many female veterans are there in Los Angeles?
To find out it took several days of making phone calls and shooting mails to representatives of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some information is immediately and easily accessible, other needs a bit of digging to access, while some data is totally beyond the public reach, even in information systems as open as the U.S.’s.
The most obvious example of that are records related to the military, which seems to be highly confidential in any country.