Magazine article Nieman Reports

Accountability Journalism: A Cost-Benefit Analysis: Putting a Dollar Value on the Benefit to Society of the Washington Post's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-Winning "Deadly Force" Investigation

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Accountability Journalism: A Cost-Benefit Analysis: Putting a Dollar Value on the Benefit to Society of the Washington Post's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-Winning "Deadly Force" Investigation

Article excerpt

The path to The Washington Post's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into shootings by D.C. police started with something that wasn't there. A Post database specialist noticed that FBI homicide reports provided no data on justifiable homicides by police.

Reporters went after the data, producing the five-part "Deadly Force" series that precipitated major changes in the D.C. police department that saved lives. It also earned a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The Post's reporting revealed that D.C. police shot and killed more individuals per resident than police officers in other large U.S. cities, and that a surge in shootings by police coincided with the hiring of many new officers and the introduction of the Glock 9mm in the D.C. police force. My cost-benefit analysis of this project shows that the results of reporting do not come cheaply to news organizations but deliver tremendous value to society.

In the absence of a single accurate and authoritative source for police shootings, The Washington Post assembled the data using many documents, including court records, use-of-force reports, and financial settlements. The reporting group, known internally as "Teamcop," worked on the series for approximately eight months. At least nine people contributed to the series, including three reporters, two editors, a database specialist, a computer-assisted reporting expert, and researchers. Guided by the Post's pay scale, I estimate that the series cost the paper $487,000 (in 2013 dollars, which I used in all my calculations) to report.

Policy changes were swift. D.C. police Chief Charles Ramsey tightened policies on when officers could fire at unarmed people in automobiles, increased use-of-force training for officers by 100,000 training hours, and improved the tracking of information on police shootings. The drop in fatalities was similarly quick. In 1998, D.C. police shot 32 people, resulting in 12 deaths. In 1999, the year following the Post series, shootings dropped to 11, with four fatalities. The next year fatal shootings by police dropped to one.

If the first year of the new police policy resulted in eight deaths averted, how can you value this? In essence, the new policy decreased the risk for D.C. residents of being shot by police. To value small decreases in risks spread across populations, economists look at what you must pay workers to accept higher risks of death in their jobs. Imagine you must pay a worker $920 to accept a risk of workplace death of one in 10,000. If 10,000 workers each accepted that risk, their decisions would involve $9.2 million in wages paid across this population to accept risks that would add up to one life lost among these 10,000 workers. In federal rulemakings, regulators use this method of taking wage decisions about risk of death to put a value on statistical lives gained or lost. In my cost-benefit analysis, I use a figure based on federal rulemakings of $9.2 million for the value of a statistical life saved. The word "statistical" is used to denote that you do not know which particular person is saved from being shot; you simply know that the reduction in risks across the D.C. population means that in aggregate fewer people will be shot.


The policy benefits in the first year of the reformed D.C. policing program are eight statistical lives saved multiplied by $9.2 million per statistical life = $73.6 million, a figure that leaves out many other benefits such as reduced medical and pain and suffering costs. The costs to implement the policy involved 100,000 hours of additional use-of-force training, which entailed $4,195,000 in police compensation costs. When you divide the net policy benefits ($69.4 million) by the story's cost of reporting ($487,000), the bargain for society becomes clear. For each dollar the Post invested in reporting, society gained over $140 in net policy benefits in the first year. …

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