As professional journalists, we often believe that we have all the answers, or that we can find the knowledgeable source that has all the answers. When it comes to covering the workings of the U.S. Congress, journalists often rely on Congressional staffers or aides with inside information to find out what’s going on. Or they follow the money through lobbying firms, through companies seeking government contracts, and connect the dots.
But in the Internet Age, everyone has an equal opportunity to follow the money, pro journalist or amateur. Thanks to a new transparency law brought about by a cross-partisan alliance of liberal and conservative bloggers last year, there’s now a database of earmarks attached to spending bills that explain which Congressperson actually attached the earmarks. These earmarks have traditionally been loaded with pork barrel projects like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. The Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense have built a platform on top of that database called EarmarkWatch.org, in which anyone can perform searches on various earmarks in Defense and Labor appropriation bills before the U.S. House and Senate.
Within a minute of signing up, I found that my representative in San Francisco, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had sponsored 15 earmarks worth a whopping $49.3 million. I could then help do research on those earmarks and find out more about the recipients. Did those recipients contribute money to Pelosi’s re-election campaign or to Democrats in general? Did the recipient lobby Pelosi for money? There are links to multiple databases to find out more and add my findings to EarmarkWatch, along with a place to add comments.
You can search EarmarkWatch for any member of Congress to see what earmarks they’ve sponsored, or search by recipients of earmarks to tally up what they’re slated to receive. For instance, Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison notes that military contractor Northrop Grumman is in line to get $37 million in earmark money for this fiscal year.
Very quickly, New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Bill Walsh latched on to a $100,000 earmark sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) for the Louisiana Family Forum, a creationist group that wants to “improve” science education in the state. Walsh’s blog post and story on the subject received 85 comments from concerned people who mostly wanted the earmark stripped from the bill.
What will be even more interesting is what average folks will do with this database. Will they take the time to hunt down earmarks to connect the dots? It’s unlikely that they would have the time and know-how to compile a deep report like Walsh’s that would run in a newspaper, complete with history and quotes from the politicians and recipients. But what EarmarkWatch.org enables is the seeds of a new amateur-pro networked journalism, where bloggers, concerned citizens and political reporters can work together to dig up the connections between political donations and pork projects.
The amateurs can work on earmarks that interest them, whether they are local or related to businesses they might not trust. They can help feed the database until more connections are made. Then once the dirt is dug up, bloggers can swoop in and post some of the more interesting findings. Professional journalists will have their place as the providers of context, giving background, explaining the deeper meaning, and seeing what the participants say in their defense. That leads, in turn, to another round of bloggers dissecting the stories and adding more fuel to the fire for follow-up stories.
It’s a new way of thinking of investigative reporting, a more open method that lets anyone dig into the numbers to make connections. It’s far from perfect, and no one knows how many people will actually pitch in to do the drudge work of researching companies and projects that are receiving earmark money. But it offers hope that investigative journalism can survive and thrive in the Digital Age, with average folks working in tandem with professionals to unearth the next money-wasting schemes from Congress.
What do you think? Would you use the EarmarkWatch database, or would you prefer that others do the dirty work? Can investigative journalism work in a more networked fashion online? Share your thoughts in the comments below.