Reporters at U.S. daily newspapers routinely turn to local, state and federal government websites to hunt for data that they can use in their stories, a recent survey by the Reynolds Journalism Institute found.
Overall, the reporters contacted said that they looked for data on the government sites three to four days a week and were generally successful in finding what they needed. However, many of the 600 reporters surveyed by the RJI Insight and Survey Center at the Missouri School of Journalism said they found information that was outdated, poorly documented or incomplete.
“We don’t know what it is that they’re not putting online,” one reporter said.
The findings from the survey, conducted as part of my fellowship at RJI, show that government data – whether it’s a spreadsheet or database file – has become a key ingredient of U.S. daily newspaper reporting.
In addition, the results affirm the need for resources like OpenMissouri.org, launched March 17 as part of my fellowship project. OpenMissouri is a catalog that lists nearly 230 databases held offline by state government. Journalists and citizens can search for information about data sets, or browse by agency and category.
In the weeks to come, we will allow journalists and citizens to generate Missouri Sunshine Law request letters from the site. We’ll also allow everyone to share data that they’ve gotten from agencies with others.
We’re hoping that, given journalists’ interest in data from government agencies at all levels, groups in other states set up catalogs similar to OpenMissouri. In fact, we will make a generic version of the catalog software available as an open-source project, which any developer can contribute to or deploy.
RJI Insight and Survey Center completed 597 telephone interviews of journalists chosen randomly Feb. 14-March 22. The Center oversampled for Missouri, so we could analyze the results from our state separately. We obtained our list of U.S. reporters from the American Society of News Editors and pulled the contact information of Missouri reporters from the Cision public-relations contacts database. We found no big differences between Missouri, which made up 13 percent of the results, and U.S. daily newspaper reporters.
We asked the reporters their perceptions about the accuracy of the data they’ve used, and how governments stack up in terms of transparency and accountability.
The reporters ranked state data as the most accurate, and local as the least. The reporters said that their local governments were the most transparent and accountable, while the federal government ranked the lowest on those counts.
Campaign finance data and lobbying data was the reported as the most available online. Workplace safety inspection records were ranked as the least available.
Overall, the reporters said they were felt neutral about the ease of search on the sites. They also felt neutral about the ease of using and understanding the data.
The reporters mostly worked with spreadsheets, to analyze the data. After that, they used geographic information system (GIS) and database programs.
Reporters registered a variety of complaints about getting data. Here’s a selection of what we heard:
- “Sometimes it is buried”
- “It’s hard to find”
- “They just don’t put enough of it there”
- “I end up going to Google”
- “Getting current records is often difficult”