Are We Losing Our Best Stories?

By LaFleur, Jennifer | News Media and the Law, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Are We Losing Our Best Stories?

LaFleur, Jennifer, News Media and the Law

The Lost Stories

How a steady stream of laws, regulations and judicial decisions have eroded reporting on important issues

Two years before Sept. 11, 2001, then-Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Beth Marchak revealed serious problems with how airlines handled hazardous materials. Many airlines, she wrote, continued to commit violations and simply paid the fines rather than fix the problems.

"The FAA is ignoring years of enforcement records that already identify repeat violators, can't tell if hazardous materials-related problems are solved, is reluctant to pursue criminal cases, and has trouble tracking fines, officials at the agency say," Marchak wrote.

But shortly after Sept. 11, when reporters became more interested in analyzing the data from airports in their coverage areas, the FAA closed the information from public release, citing security reasons. The agency now releases some of the information, but withholds any records relating to hazardous materials or security breaches.

While many journalists were aware of the damage Sept. 11 did to the availability of open records in the United States, openness was already being hit from another angle. Privacy considerations began making it more difficult for reporters and the public to get records relating to individuals.

The past two decades of journalism in the United States generated a collection of important stories that made significant changes to benefit the public interest. But reporting many of those stories would be difficult or impossible today because of greater restrictions on access to institutions, events and information. Whether by acts of Congress, new rules by federal agencies, decisions by courts, or even overreactions by administrators and bureaucrats, restrictions on access have led to a host of "lost stories" that are no longer informing the public about how its government works.

This guide reviews some of those lost stories, discusses future risks that journalists should watch for, and advises journalists how to compensate for the shortfalls in access.

Driver records

Congress passed the Driver's Privacy Protection Act in 1994 to protect personal information in driver records. The DPPA requires states releasing driver information to ensure that the release is authorized by the driver and that the information will be used only for specifically authorized purposes, such as law enforcement and insurance coverage. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) hoped to prevent stalking when she introduced the measure, but it has stopped reporting in many states that relied on driver records.

"There was stupendous public good in that reporting," said Charles Davis, director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri.

In 1986 and 1987, for example, Elliot Jaspin, then a reporter for the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin, looked into the records of school bus drivers. The story, one of the pioneering uses of databases for investigative reporting, relied on an analysis of computer records to show the high rate of motor vehicle violations and the high rate of felony convictions among the drivers. The stories reported on the state's haphazard system for certifying drivers.

The story inspired more reporters around the country to use databases to investigate government institutions and processes. Such stories led to changes in law and public awareness of serious problems and corruption.

In November 1996, then-Columbus Dispatch reporter Michael Berens analyzed Ohio drivers license data to show that under Ohio's system of traffic enforcement, there was a record number of drivers whose licenses were suspended for not filing a report with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The DPPA provisions had not taken affect in Ohio by that time.

The series detailed how an obscure traffic accident reporting law resulted in the suspensions of 110,000 drivers licenses in just a five-year period; many were the hospitalized accident victims.

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Are We Losing Our Best Stories?


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