A concrete example of journalistic success

The Los Angeles Times expands on its outstanding coverage of earthquake risks

In media criticism as in journalism in general, it’s easier to write compellingly about failure than success. As the old saw suggests, it is hard to make a decent lede out of the airliner that lands safely.

But sometimes journalism is well enough planned and executed to constitute, in itself, news—as in the case with recent earthquake coverage at the Los Angeles Times.

I’ve already offered an attaboy to the Times for an earlier series of stories—available here, here, and here—about plans for major new Los Angeles developments that could span earthquake faults, with potentially disastrous results. Buildings that lie directly over faults can literally be torn apart by the ground movements involved in a significant earthquake.

Within the last week, the Times has extended and expanded that series in spectacular fashion. Three recent stories about some 1,000 older concrete buildings that could be at risk of collapse constitute a coup of preventive journalism.

The first of these stories, published last Sunday, lays out the problem in a powerful way:

Los Angeles officials have known about the dangers for more than 40 years but have failed to force owners to make their properties safer. The city has even rejected calls to make a list of concrete buildings.

In the absence of city action, university scientists compiled the first comprehensive inventory of potentially dangerous concrete buildings in Los Angeles.

The scientists, however, have declined to make the information public. They said they are willing to share it with L.A. officials, but only if the city requests a copy. The city has not done so, the scientists said.

Recent earthquakes have spotlighted the deadly potential of buildings held up by concrete. A 2011 quake in Christchurch, New Zealand, more than two years ago toppled two concrete office towers, killing 133 people. Many of the 6,000 people killed in a 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, were in concrete buildings.

In an attempt to fill in the blanks on the concrete-building puzzle, the Times detailed a team of reporters who examined thousands of city and county records to identify older concrete buildings—erected before city codes were strengthened to require more steel rebar. They found more than 1,000 in Los Angeles and hundreds elsewhere in the county. Reporters then walked through seven L.A. business districts, pulled building permits, and sent questionnaires to property owners. The survey was hardly comprehensive, but it led to the conservative estimate that during a severe earthquake, “as many as 50 of these buildings in the city alone would be destroyed, exposing thousands to injury or death.” The reporters also discovered that some concrete buildings have been retrofitted to withstand earthquakes, while others have not; the Times presented information on 68 concrete buildings its reporters investigated via an interactive multimedia map.

A follow-up story examined lenient seismic rules that require retrofitting of vulnerable concrete buildings only if their use is changed—for instance, if an old industrial building is converted to residential lofts. The kicker on that story is an important one: “The retrofit law has given a measure of security to thousands of new downtown residents. But it has also left out thousands of others who still live and work in old concrete buildings: office workers, denizens of residential hotels, people on the line in sewing businesses.”

And a few days later, the Times pushed the issue squarely under the nose of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who said he’s interested in “creative ways” of making buildings stronger but fears the legal liability that could follow from identifying concrete buildings as earthquake risks. This story is interesting for its political dimension; watching a spanking-new mayor who’s fostered a technocratic, get-things-done image grapple in public with a politically loaded life-and-death problem—one that hadn’t been on his agenda—is very nearly a theatrical experience.

But the article also serves to educate readers to a reality that is sometimes ignored in revelatory journalism: Even in potentially deadly situations, costs and benefits must be weighed. Governments do not have infinite amounts of money; elected officials who heap huge costs onto property owners without a truly compelling reason can quickly find themselves unelected. Requiring all older concrete buildings in Los Angeles (and, for that matter, other seismically active areas in California) to be retrofitted with additional bracing would be enormously expensive. Just the engineering study to determine whether retrofitting is needed could, the Times noted, cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single building. Mistakenly identifying a building as a hazard could mean a substantial legal judgment against the city—costing money that could have been devoted to public services.

At the same time, there’s the point made by Councilman Bernard Parks, and reported by the Times: “The greatest liability is to know—and do nothing.”

Garcetti’s response to the Times’ work in bringing the concrete-building problem to light seems a reasonable, if cautious, one: He is talking to earthquake experts, assigning lawyers to examine the legalities of the situation, and looking into the possibility of getting some kind of state assistance, perhaps in the form of a statewide loan program, for concrete building retrofits. “We won’t turn things around in a day,” the mayor told the Times.

But the government’s wheels are at least starting to turn. There’s a chance now that a dangerous hazard will be addressed—and that lives will be spared the next time a major earthquake hits. And it is clear that the Los Angeles Times’ enterprising journalism gave the push needed to get the policy process rolling.

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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , ,