Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Importance of Public Records Should Not Be Overlooked

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Importance of Public Records Should Not Be Overlooked

Article excerpt

WHEN AN APARTMENT building burned to the ground, killing 10 people near downtown Los Angeles last May, the local media covered the story extensively.

One television station abandoned all other news coverage in order to bring viewers live reporting of the unfolding tragedy. The stories generated by the fire were dramatic and well-written but it was not until the next day that one newspaper really took the reporting lead.

While other media moved on to the next local disaster, Los Angeles Times editor Tim Reiterman dispatched reporter Claire Spiegel to sift, in a figurative sense, through the ashes. Spiegel, one of the paper's best investigative reporters, was told to follow any paper trail that could help readers better understand the tragedy.

At the city's Building and Safety Department, she reviewed inspection reports that detailed the building's numerous code violations over a period of years.

At the fire department, going on leads the fire chief had given at a press conference, she discovered that in the wake of two recent fires and a longstanding pattern of serious fire code violations, the building's owner had been ordered to put into place a 24-hour fire watch until corrections were made.

The owner did not comply and the department failed to enforce its order.

With good reporting, a solid knowledge of public records and encouragement from her editor, Spiegel was able to inform readers that the apartment fire was more than just another big-city tragedy.

"We were able to put a single occurrence into a much broader context," Spiegel observed.

Public records have long provided the underpinnings for some of the country's best investigative reporting. They are often ignored, however, by reporters covering the bread-and-butter daily stories.

As the Times example demonstrates, it often takes an editor overseeing reporters' efforts to ensure that important stones are not left unturned in the search for full and accurate stories.

"Editors need to encourage reporters to take that extra step," Reiterman pointed out. "Often it's just asking the question of whether we've looked at this or that document."

Editors and reporters are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of public records available. Each story has its own particular paper trail, which can include everything from OSHA reports to workers' compensation evaluations to corporation records. …

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