Whether it’s the Iraq War, the events of 9/11 or the Department of Homeland Security, government conduct (or misconduct) is what you’d like to see investigated most. I asked a very open-ended question to you last week, “What investigative report would you like to see done?” Your answers included many bread-and-butter issues such as health care, education and real estate. But the overriding issue was government conduct, a popular issue in classic journalism investigations such as Watergate in the ’70s — but perhaps lacking in today’s corporate media.
Before I get into the particulars of your best ideas, here’s a generalized tally of the topics you want covered more deeply. Note that I’ve counted the government topics twice — generally under the “government” heading and also under a more specific subject matter (e.g. a suggested story on investigating Iraq War pre-war intelligence would be counted under government and Iraq War).
Media issues: 2
Iraq War: 2
Department of Homeland Security: 1
African-American reparations: 1
Online data: 1
Real estate: 1
Health care: 1
Elections e-voting: 1
Part of my motivation for asking this question was that a new project, NewAssignment.net, is getting ready to soft-launch this fall (I am an advisor for this project). Jay Rosen, a blogger at PressThink and associate professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism, is the idea man behind NewAssignment.net. The idea is to create “open source” investigative reports, where people fund projects directly and help professional editors do their investigations. The site has already received money from Craig Newmark of Craigslist and the Sunlight Foundation.
Rosen (pictured here) is of two minds when it comes to putting this open-ended question to people.
“Reviewing the results of this exercise, and simlar ones I have conducted, I realize it’s hard for people to respond to a generalized call for story ideas,” he told me via email. “Too abstract. ‘What would you like to see investigated?’ is a question that lacks a context. As a taxpayer in California, as a parent with kids in Montgomery County public schools, as a customer of the cable companies, as a military family…what would you like to see investigated? Those are different questions, closer to life.”
Despite that, he also noted that there is value in open-ended questions “precisely because there is no direction.” Here are the three ideas that Rosen liked best out of your submissions.
From Zach Rodgers, who blogs at Limb from Limb:
I think we need closer investigation of the storage and use of registration and clickstream data generated by Internet users. Our online behavior tells a story about us, and by now most people know that story is preserved on servers and databases. Questions: Who owns the data? Where’s it being kept? How long is it being kept? What’s it being used for? What might it be used for some day? How does this compare with the ways data has always been used in the offline world of print subscriptions and direct marketing?
[Note that fellows in the News21 journalism program did cover this territory in an investigative Digital Trails report.]
From Mike Cantor, a childhood friend of mine who works in health care for the elderly:
Ever notice that our country, and our world are getting older? The lack of a system to care for people with chronic illnesses, and there are more and more every day, threatens our entire public health and health care systems. Yet, no one seems to notice when the government cuts funding for education of health care workers in geriatrics, or that Medicare cuts and the Medicare drug benefit (Part D) shell game hurt the people who need it most.
Let’s hear what journalists dig up from the politicians too scared to face the tough decisions that need to be made to keep Medicare and Social Security solvent. And, let’s hear from the people — older people living at home, in assisted living, and in nursing homes. What do the caregivers, spouses and adult kids, family friends and neighbors, have to say about the challenges and rewards of providing care for their loved ones? How will technology affect the ways the Baby Boomers age and use health care services? These realities are inescapable, and it is time for all of us to face the future, or should I say, the present.
Rosen likes the idea of tracking the workings of the new Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.
And from Russ Walker, an editor at Washingtonpost.com:
There was much consternation about electronic voting in some quarters after the 2004 election. Were the results manipulated? Do the machines record votes properly? Can someone hack into the machines and change results later? What voting machinery you use depends on where you live, by and large. Local governments generally have the final say on what type of machine you will use. After the 2000 election mess, Congress approved billions to help states and local governments acquire updated machines.
So here’s the project: Let’s build a database to identify what voting machines are in use in every precinct in the nation. That will be our baseline data set, from which we can attempt specific reporting projects after the 2006 midterm elections.
Perhaps Washingtonpost.com could help in such an effort? Rosen liked the idea and thought it was intriguing. “I could imagine a polling place project that tries to gather good information about every place Americans vote — who runs it, how it is equipped, who works there, how the votes are collected.”
I also liked an idea that came from website developer Jon Henshaw:
I would like to see more investigative reports on companies in the biotech industry and other industries where we know wrongdoing is going on, but nobody will report on it for fear of being sued. Ever since the covered up Tampa Fox report of Monsanto secretly shooting up milk cows with rBGH hormones, I haven’t seen an investigative report worth watching or reading about — because investigators and their corporate parents are too worried about being sued.”
The promise of open source or networked journalism is that there wouldn’t be such a corporate parent worried about lawsuits, though legal issues would still be important.
So what comes next? NewAssignment.net is looking to start with a pilot project this fall, with a full-blown launch coming next spring. You can join in the conversation at their site or check out other collaborative projects such as the Sunlight Foundation’s Exposing Earmarks effort. Got any other ideas in need of collaborative investigation? Share them in the comments below.