Educating Emma: One intern’s lesson in investigative reporting

Pile of papers and folders (depositphotos)

By Margot Susca

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“You aren’t going to understand it,” the spokesman at Virginia’s top education agency told me during our third phone call. His comment came two weeks after I had submitted a public records request to his agency, part of a project I had planned both to report and to use as training.

Prior to that call, we’d talked twice and exchanged a handful of emails. Now, he’d allowed me and IRW intern Emma Caramazza to talk with him and one of Virginia’s data managers about the public records request.

I had hoped by the time Emma, our summer high school intern, started working with me, we’d know what the data revealed in a handful of states, including Virginia. I’d chosen to start our records request in states within a short drive from Washington, D.C., where IRW is based at American University, thinking maybe we could round out our data-driven reporting with feet on the street.

Instead, what Emma got was a lesson in frustration and patience as we waited for records and data to move through bureaucratic processes so we could get them, navigating spokespeople in some states who seemed to want to dodge rather than assist.

“Responses were slow, people were reluctant to give us access to certain records, and terminology amongst the states differed, making it difficult to explain what type of data we were looking for,” Emma said in an email. “I learned the importance of clarity when speaking or writing to a source, as well as quickly coming up with solutions if a source does not offer the proper information on the first try.”

Once we expanded our requests beyond drivable boundaries, Emma also got a lesson in traversing such systems as Hawaii’s and South Carolina’s, which required a second layer of requests to data portals beyond initial public records requests, adding time and effort in managing the project.

Yael Grauer wrote about using government records, noting it can be a “frustrating and time-consuming process.”

“So if you think you can file a records request today and have a story ready to publish next week, be aware that things normally won’t work on your schedule,” Grauer wrote.

By the third week in July, we had emailed public records requests or sent data appeals to all 50 state education departments. Washington, D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education was the 51st request and, it’s worth noting, the only outright denial we have received so far. Our reporting is ongoing so we aren’t saying too much about the subject matter here other than it deals with a state-by-state dive into education data.

The difference in responses to these requests can serve as a helpful reminder to others getting started on a large-scale investigation that requires acquiring data from multiple states. As MuckRock reminded us last year: Lots of states could do better, and there’s no uniformity in either access laws or teeth to penalize if state officials fail to comply.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers this guide to public records laws and sunshine legislation in each state. IRE offers other tip sheets for its members including this one from Ellen Gabler of The New York Times titled “How to Get the Goods.”

To date, 42 states and Washington, D.C., have responded to IRW’s request for electronic files. Neither the data nor the responses have been uniform.

To date, 42 states and Washington, D.C., have responded to IRW’s request for electronic files. Neither the data nor the responses have been uniform.

Delaware requires any public education data requests to go through an online portal to a staff member’s email address. When I tried confirming the email address with him on the phone, he said: “No. That’s not correct.” I notified the spokeswoman, who had referred me to that online portal. By the end of the day, it was fixed, but I wondered how many members of the public had tried to get access only to be foiled by an incorrect email address.

Tennessee stood by its residency requirement for accessing its public records. A former IRW intern working there helped us submit that one.

Idaho and Washington complied within a few days, emailing back .csv or Excel files. Florida education officials answered quickly. Arkansas, Texas and Kentucky officials answered within a week. None required payment.

The communications director at Iowa’s Department of Education said Wednesday in an email that the agency offers three hours for free to comply with Freedom of Information requests, then starts charging $33 per hour. She sent an Excel spreadsheet to comply with our request but noted the work took longer than three hours. She would not charge us because no one notified us in advance of the charge, she wrote.

In my experience this summer, states that charge will tell you upfront what the time and money will be to fulfill the request.

Georgia said our request would take a staff member 1.75 hours at a salary of $30.31 an hour to complete. Its legal team’s response noted: “Accordingly, the cost to provide the records is $53.04.” Payment cannot be done by credit card.

In Mississippi, an official response noted it would take six hours to fulfill IRW’s request and cost $211.32. I was told in an email what the cost would be, and officials would not compile records without us paying.

In Ohio, the assistant legal counsel emailed me, saying, “Please be advised that the Department is not able to identify a record that is responsive to your request.”

As we made follow-up calls and talked to data staff members and public information officers, I also thought of Los Angeles Times Deputy Editor of Enterprise & Investigations Kimbriell Kelly telling a group at American University last year that they should respect officials’ humanity. I remembered that advice, noting the people we were calling and emailing were also looking forward to summer vacations and dealing with their own day-to-day emails and requests from other reporters on deadline.

With that in mind, and even after our experience on the phone with the Virginia official, I was gobsmacked by conversations with data employees in both Maine and Minnesota, where the officials were not just helpful, but kind. Maine’s head of data was so knowledgeable and accommodating that she provided insight into what may be another large-scale project.

But, of course, first we need to finish this one.

As an associate editor at IRW, much of my work is helping to train journalists still in college or who have recently graduated. A few years ago we expanded that training to high-performing high school students, helping launch a new generation interested in and capable of doing investigative reporting.

Frequently, as we slogged through our own spreadsheet tracking state-by-state progress and reading education policy memos, I would joke with Emma: “Is this investigative reporting thing as glamorous as you imagined?”

While we didn’t make it as far as I had hoped, without Emma’s help, we wouldn’t have made it this far at all.

“As I am now starting to work on my own school newspaper, I’ve taken what I have learned and applied it to my work,” Emma emailed Wednesday.

And, now, as we sort through the responses — the PDFs, the Excel spreadsheets, the Word documents and the .csv files, not to mention the other emails saying when states will offer their information — I feel a great sense of satisfaction that even with the wildly different state-by-state responses, we are helping hold these government agencies accountable.

On the phone with that spokesman in Virginia, I assured him that whether I could understand the data was beyond his concern. Whether we’d “understand it” was never really a concern for me anyway, not just because I’ve taken three statistics classes and have a doctorate, but because Data Editor Jennifer LaFleur — who trains people worldwide — sits just a few yards away. Eventually, he knew we weren’t going away.

One week later, we had Virginia’s data.