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The Dig: Easy Recipes for Investigative Stories in Three-Dot Bursts

Public records such as voting history and license plate information can add up to vital information for journalists and everyday folks.

The Dig

An investigative reporter’s candid advice for uncovering life’s everyday truths

T. Christian Miller

In the spirit of experimentation, The Dig will be delivered today in the three-dot journalism style of Herb Caen. Caen was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who covered his city in staccato bursts of news split by asterisks. In other words, don’t expect much structure.

FUN POLITICAL STORY — As we move ever closer to elections, here’s an easy yet tasty recipe for a politics story with public records. Your vote in an election is secret, of course. But the fact of whether you voted is not. In many states, you can go to the registrar of voters and ask to see the voting record of a particular individual — say everyone on the city council, and everyone running for city council. This allows you to find out how many of these seemingly public-spirited folks bothered to vote in previous elections. If you find out that candidate A, say a billionaire from Silicon Valley, failed to vote in the last few mid-terms, it’s worth asking the whereabouts of his civic spirit before he proposed a gigantic new tech project. Journos can have fun with this of course, but if you’re one of the growing number of unfortunate Americans living in a news desert, you can educate yourself and your neighbors about a cut-and-dried issue. If people run for office, but have a spotty record of actually participating in democracy, they should be held to account.

A BEAT JOURNAL is how I fastened the previous story in my head. It’s something that every reporter should keep. Each time you get beat on a story — or simply miss the obvious — write it down in your beat journal (That’s beat as in “I got beat on this story. Damn.”) The point is to create a deliberate process to determine how you got beat. What did the other reporter know or do that you didn’t. In my case, I was backgrounding Dick Cheney in 2000, after former President George W. Bush had named him as his running mate. I had done routine public records checks and found little interesting — until I read about Cheney’s failure to vote in 14 of 16 elections in his home state of Texas on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. (A spokesman explained Cheney’s shoddy voting record by noting that he traveled frequently as the head of Halliburton, the oil services business: “He does think that voting is important. He did it whenever he could.” Which makes voting sound kind of like vacuuming under the bed.) It still stings, 16 years later. But at the time, I didn’t even know that the registrar would release such records. My beat journal grew over the years, a reminder of stories missed and a recipe book for stories yet to come.

A FINAL TINDER TRICK rose to mind as a result of a question from Bob Manning, a reader in Kentucky. Bob wanted to know about the availability of license tag information. A quick search showed that Kentucky provides an online site to request such information. The state releases information only to certain parties, but one of them is “for use in research activities…so long as the personal information is not published.” Not so good for journos, but useful for a Tinder user who wants to know more the history of the Tesla Model S P90D owned (or just rented?) by a match. Another potentially interesting source of records are automobile tollbooths. Want to know when and where your potential match is going? You can file a records request with the tollbooth authority for information on a license plate in some states. Although I would classify this type of date sleuthing as “super-super-creepy,” such information was put to spectacularly good use by the Sun Sentinel. The Florida paper requested records for local police vehicles, which had transponders tracking when and where they passed through toll booths. By analyzing the records, reporters determined that cops routinely traversed state highways at speeds exceeding 80 miles per hour when they were responding to minor calls, or even just joy-riding. They uncovered egregious cases, like an officer going more than 104 miles an hour when he hit a 20-year-old student who was left severely brain-damaged. The stories were awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Filed under “Why Access to Public Records Is Important.”

WORST ACRONYM WINNER — Congrats to Trevor Wagner, who submitted this gem: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. According to its website, the program monitors and reports on health-risk behaviors for adolescents, including “alcohol and other drug use.” One hopes that YRBSS is not pronounced “herbs” around the office. He gets a free professionally written Freedom of Information Act request.

I’m open for business. Help democratize journalism! Share your tips for getting access to public records useful to journalists and everyday folks. Send questions about reporting, ethics, or life in general — though no promises the last will be answered well. Write at [email protected], or @txtianmiller.

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