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Accountability: Choices in watchdog coverage

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Holding those in power accountable is the heart of public service journalism. But sometimes reporters and editors think too narrowly about the possibilities.

Accountability does not just mean illegal. Accountability journalism is a matter of (a) citing a standard and then (b) showing how the subject  has fallen short or violated the terms. So think of “accountability” along a range of standards when covering a beat.

Consider this range of standards:

  • Illegal
  • Violation of policies, standards
  • Inefficient (i.e. costs, manpower)
  • Misleading; not as promised
  • Deceptive; fraudulent
  • Dangerous
  • Potentially harmful

Now consider the possibilities and examples here off a City Hall beat.

Illegal: The subject has violated the law. Pure and simple. (e.g. Department head embezzles money.)

Violation of policies, standards: Sometimes this takes digging deeper into city policies that may not be well known. Or if the city policy is vague, digging into similar policies in other cities, or national standards put forth by professional associations or other credible experts. (e.g. City building inspectors fail to follow up on condemned building notices as outlined in city policies. City employees expense personal travel expenses on official trips. City’s review policy for municipal judges far more lax than other cities, and below what the state Supreme Court recommends.)

Inefficient: This usually comes about by doing the math and making smart comparisons. Sometimes there are related standards. Other times the comparisons might run over periods of time or be struck between similar-size cities. (e.g. City finance department’s old computer system makes fast and immediate budget projections impossible. City spends twice what other similar-size cities spend for road repairs.)

Misleading, not as promised: Here the comparison is between what the subject said or promised and what actually happened. Sometimes inefficient and misleading combine. Often this is just recalling what was said in the past and comparing to the results in the present. (e.g. Mayor promised to install open bidding process on city projects — but a year later has not.)

Deceptive, fraudulent: This occurs when bad things are happening (e.g. inefficient) and the subject is willfully lying or covering up the failure. (e.g. City managers cover up overtime expenses to meet budget restrictions.)

Dangerous: When practices — even accepted practices — pose an immediate danger on any level. This can involve public health, money, staffing, etc. The task here is to articulate and prove the danger. (e.g. City water department has not updated its water testing procedures in 20 years, leaving public vulnerable to various pollutants.)

Potentially harmful: A variation on dangerous, but without the immediate threat. These stories look further into the future and may track a worrisome trend, project the math, or in some way identify a problem that has not yet occurred but soon may. (e.g. Rules on lobbyists are far more lax than in other cities, which could lead to undue influence by outside interests in coming budget negotiations.)

Again, the task for each level is to articulate a standard and then prove how it is missed or violated. In many cases, that means going outside the subject of the story for sources with expertise, perspective, proven standards, or other metrics that set up the case to be made.

The denouement comes when after working out the standard, the reporter confronts the subject with clear evidence of how it has been missed or violated. But often the bulk of the story is more explanatory, laying out the standards and the proof of how the subject has fallen short. The best avoid much he said / she said exchanges and instead focus on making a strong case.

This is the essence of good watchdog coverage of government, schools, health care, and other important public institutions, private companies, and powerful individuals. It is also time-consuming work that requires digging, critical thinking, and beat knowledge, things readers rely on us to provide.

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Written by mroberts8

February 17, 2010 at 12:07 am

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