Access to much of the information is dependent on new online intermediaries. Neither house of Congress, for instance, nor any city council of the twenty-five largest American cities nor most state legislative houses make an individual legislator’s roll-call votes available in easily usable form, for example. However, that information is now available online for a fee from three different Congress-watching organizations and for free on the Web sites OpenCongress.org, GovTrack.us, and Washingtonpost.com. Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy has created a keyword-searchable online database of federal court records that is much less cumbersome to use than the database maintained by the courts themselves.
Some of this public information comes from government agencies that have been around for a long time, like the Government Accountability Office or the Security and Exchange Commission. Others, like the Federal Election Commission (1975) or the Environmental Protection Agency, which produces the Toxic Release Inventory (1986), or the individual departments’ and agencies’ inspectors general (most of them established through the Inspectors General Act of 1978) are products of the past several decades. All produce abundant information and analysis about government and what it regulates, information that both resembles and assists news reporting.
Outside government, advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations have sometimes created what resemble news staffs to report on the subjects of their special interest. It is then up to journalists to separate the groups’ activist agendas from their information gathering, which, in many cases, the journalists have grown to trust. Taxpayers for Common Sense, founded in 1995, for example, has painstakingly gathered data on congressional “earmarking” that is the starting point for journalists who report on how members of Congress add money to appropriation bills for projects sought by special interests, constituents, and campaign contributors.
Besides their own version of reporting, governments and interest groups also are opening up increasing numbers of digital databases to journalists and citizens. For instance, ProPublica and the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation have created a downloadable database of two years of federal filings from 300 foreign agents on their lobbying of Congress.
Foundations should consider news reporting of public affairs to be a continuous public good rather than a series of specific projects under their control.
A database is not journalism, but, increasingly, sophisticated journalism depends on reliable, downloadable, and searchable databases. The federal government alone has fourteen statistical agencies and about sixty offices within other agencies that produce statistical data. Such data, said Columbia professor of Public Affairs Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, “has an assumed precision that the journalistic world is trained to question.” It needs to be evaluated carefully and skeptically.
The accessibility of so much more public information changes the work of journalists and the nature of news reporting. It provides reporters new shortcuts to usable, usually reliable information, saving them and their news organizations time and money. It runs the risk of drowning reporters in deep seas of data, but it makes possible richer and more comprehensive and accurate reporting.
What needs to be done to support independent news reporting?
We are not recommending a government bailout of newspapers, nor any of the various direct subsidies that governments give newspapers in many European countries, although those subsidies have not had a noticeably chilling effect on newspapers’ willingness to print criticism of those governments. Nor are we recommending direct government financing or control of television networks or stations.
Most Americans have a deep distrust of direct government involvement or political influence in independent news reporting, a sentiment we share. But this should not preclude government support for news reporting any more than it has for the arts, the humanities, and sciences, all of which receive some government support.
There has been a minimum of government pressure in those fields, with a few notable exceptions. The National Endowment for the Arts came under fire in the 1990s, for example, for the controversial nature of some of the art it helped sponsor with federal funds. So any use of government money to help support news reporting would require mechanisms, besides the protections of the First Amendment, to insulate the resulting journalism as much as possible from pressure, interference, or censorship.