In a group telephone interview about their coverage of the fault issue, Lin, Xia, and Smith described an editorial process that grew out of the paper’s standing commitment to covering earthquake-related issues and was characterized by teamwork of a type that should be—but often is not—newsroom routine. Linthicum noticed the fault situation while reporting on the Millennium Hollywood dispute and mentioned it to Lin, who specializes in earthquake coverage; meanwhile, Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin read Linthicum’s initial coverage and also suggested a deeper look at the fault angle. While Lin and Xia started reporting, Smith, the data editor, began to pull together digital maps.

As a result of this cooperation—which included additional input from City Hall reporters on development trends in Hollywood—coverage of the Millennium project spread to other proposed developments near (or possibly on) the Hollywood fault. From there, reader input and additional reporting directed attention to the Santa Monica fault and the Century City project.

Strong earthquakes can literally tear buildings that span fault lines in half. So one might think that quake-prone, highly regulated California would have a well-defined process for ensuring that large buildings are not constructed directly above earthquake faults. But as Lin, Xia, and Smith have shown, that process is anything but fail-safe. State law requires developers building in seismic zones to find the exact location of active faults mapped by the state, and the law prohibits owners from building within 50 feet of a fault. But the state has mapped only about 550 active faults, Lin says, and 300 more remain to be mapped—including the Hollywood and Santa Monica faults that the Times focused on.

Because of its seismic history, California has seen much fine coverage of earthquake safety issues; the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “On Shaky Ground,” an investigation into systematic failures in upholding earthquake standards for public schools, is but one example of such distinguished reportage. California news outlets have placed particular emphasis on the need for programs to strengthen unreinforced masonry buildings and other existing structures that are vulnerable to quakes.

But clearly, California journalists have an opportunity—and an ongoing duty —to make sure major new developments are not built atop earthquake faults, and the Times’ recent coverage suggests steps other news organizations should consider taking. Those steps could start online, at the California Geological Survey 2010 Fault Activity Map of California. The CGS site also has fault maps available for download in shapefile format, Smith notes, so they can be layered onto other geospatial maps, locating the faults in relation to streets and other landmarks. The state maps are not necessarily accurate “down to the block level,” Smith notes, but they can help determine whether what the state considers an active fault is somewhere near the site of proposed development.

Locating the exact course of a fault usually requires boring, trench digging, and other in-the-ground seismic inquiry. Cities can require such investigation before they approve major developments, but, as the Times has shown, sometimes they do not. Truly preventive journalism would make sure that kind of seismic investigation happens when it matters—long before construction of a building that could endanger hundreds or thousands of people ever begins.

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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.