In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Marijuana rules of the road:
With Colorado legalizing pot last week, I’ve been waiting for a story about whether the bomb-sniffing dogs at the Denver International Airport will now have an expanded portfolio.
This story on CNN.com says that travelers will not be searched for marijuana per se but that carrying pot through the airport is not allowed. If a traveler is searched for any other reason and pot is found the traveler will be subject to a “$999 administrative fine.”
Does this relatively laid back approach mean that people coming in and out of Colorado will be free to take marijuana cigarettes or brownies home with them? With that in mind, how do the purchase limits — one ounce per transaction for Colorado residents and a quarter of an ounce for non-residents — work? Is there a limit on the number of transactions a non-resident can make in a day or a week?
2. How often is the CBO right?
This article last week by Sarah Kliff, the Washington Post’s terrific healthcare policy reporter, is about whether Obamacare might end up achieving the number of enrollments projected last year by the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO. It’s a great piece, but I’m using it here to demonstrate the need for a different story that digs into this question: How good is the CBO at making projections that then assume a gospel-like aura?
Just about every significant piece of legislation debated in Washington is “scored” by the CBO, a non-partisan office of economists and other policy experts. The CBO’s website describes the scoring this way: “independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process. The agency… conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year.”
It was the CBO’s scoring of Obamacare that allowed the Obama administration to claim that the overall effect of the law would be to lower the deficit rather than raise it.
In fact, I’ve been told by Congressional staffers, it was an initial CBO score of the bill that forced those pushing the law to lower from 40 to 30 the weekly work hours that would define a full- time worker for whom employers would have to provide insurance or otherwise pay a penalty. (The lower threshold would produce more penalty payments, thereby lowering the net cost of the law, when scored by the CBO.)
I’ve also been told by Congressional staffers that the process by which the CBO staff does its game-defining scoring is opaque and sometimes even maddeningly mysterious.
So, why can’t someone from the Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg, or National Journal eliminate some of the mystery and tell us more about how the CBO works? Better yet, let’s see a scorecard of their scores. How have the costs, the savings and the other metrics they’ve predicted in recent years panned out?
3. Hiring journalists in war zones:
This story in the Guardian two weeks ago about Molhem Barakat, “a freelance photographer reputed to be just 17 years old” who was killed while shooting pictures for Reuters in the Syrian war zone, is worth an aggressive follow-up.
The Guardian quoted freelance photographer Lucinda Smith as writing on her blog about “refusing to work with [Barakat] ‘because I didn’t want the responsibility of an eager 17-year-old with no war zone training and little experience on my shoulders.’”
“When she noted that he was filing photos for Reuters, she hoped that the agency was taking responsibility for him,” the Guardian reported.
“That concern, following his death, prompted questions from other journalists,” the Guardian added, “on whether it was appropriate for Reuters to use the work of a teenager in a war zone.”
But according to the Guardian, Reuters has sidestepped those questions, issuing a statement that it was saddened by Barakat’s death, but that it was “inappropriate to comment any further at this time.”
Doing journalism, especially photography, in war zones is, of course, difficult, as is finding people willing to risk their lives to do it. It is hardly the kind of workplace that lends itself to OSHA or child labor law audits. Yet getting the news — and the pictures out — is vitally important.
Reuters has since commented further, emailing me a statement from Global Communications Head Barb Burg, that Barakat was actually 18, not 17 as the Guardian reported, when he began shooting pictures for the news agency last May and that he was provided a “ballistic helmet and body armor.”
That’s a good start, but reporters ought to force more comment out of Reuters and other worldwide news organizations about the issues raised by the photographer’s death. How do they recruit and screen employees - or freelancers - for these jobs? Did Reuters check to make sure that he was 18, or did it just happen that he was? How do other news organizations deal with these and other vetting issues? How do they try to protect them? Do they provide benefits if a free-lancer is injured or killed? Are employees who work in high-risk zones volunteers or are they assigned? Can they opt out without risking their careers?
More generally, how do these news organizations decide that an assignment is or is not worth the risk? And at what level in the executive hierarchy are these decisions made?