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Calculating the Work Behind Our Work

Verifying 4,969 names. Driving 1,493 miles for interviews. Fact-checking 291 facts for one story … twice. Here are some hidden costs of our reporting.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

At ProPublica, one of our watchwords is transparency. We want you see how we do our work. That’s why we publish the data we use in our stories and produce reports three times a year detailing our projects and their impact. You can also check out our annual financial statements on our website.

Even so, in what is a particularly turbulent time for the press, many of us in journalism have come to realize the public doesn’t necessarily know as much about the way we go about our jobs as we may think.

Investigative reporting is hard, time-consuming and painstaking. It comes with costs. Actual costs, of course, but costs in time and resources, too, that often remain invisible. So this week, I want to share with you a few examples of the work behind our work here at ProPublica Illinois.

For her story about juvenile offenders receiving lengthy adult sentences for minor offenses, reporter Duaa Eldeib pursued the Illinois Department of Corrections for weeks to win permission to interview inmates in the state’s prisons because she knew it was important to talk with them face to face. She made trips to a state prison and a county jail for the interviews. And she put 1,493 miles on her car to do it.

One of the key figures in Mick Dumke’s story about gun trafficking in Chicago was a government informant we knew only by his first name: Yousef. Finding him so we could get his perspective — or at least let him know, in the interest of fairness, that we were writing about his case — involved scouring hundreds of pages of court records to find his full name. Then we went through online databases to try to find his contact information.

Unable to reach him by phone or email, we spent hours driving to several suburbs to knock on the doors at homes where he and family members may have lived. Ultimately, we found and spoke with his wife and got a call from his attorney. Yousef didn't want to talk with us, but he appreciated our efforts to offer him the chance.

This marked-up sheet of paper represents just a fraction of the extensive fact-checking that went into Jason Grotto’s story about the error-ridden commercial and industrial property assessments system in Cook County. Jason underlined and assigned a number to every fact in the 4,000-word article. Then he created a spreadsheet that included the fact number, a flag to indicate if it had been checked, a flag for any needed change to the fact, the source of the fact and a notes field for any other pertinent information about the fact. He did this for 291 facts. And then he went through and fact-checked the entire story again.

Yes, just like Santa, Jason made a list and checked it twice.

There are so many other examples of our “invisible costs’’ I could share with you — the 4,969 attorney names Sandhya Kambhampati looked up on LinkedIn, the two months of repeated emails and calls it took Melissa Sanchez to begin to get some government data she needed — but I think you get the idea. Precise, exhaustive — and sometimes tedious — work stands behind every one of our stories.

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in the two and a half months we’ve been publishing at ProPublica Illinois and we’re excited about the work that’s to come. But we need your support to keep doing it. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on people like you — who know the value of independent journalism in Illinois — to provide our funding. As you plan your end-of-year giving, we hope you’ll consider donating to us. Your gift is tax-deductible, and you’ll be helping to power our stories in 2018.

Happy new year,

Louise Kiernan, ProPublica Illinois

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