Friday, November 17, 2023

Gathering statehouse information challenges reporters; tips from other journalists can help

Getting all the facts can be frustrating for journalists.
(Library of Congress photo via SEJ)
Journalists often have to work hard to track down the facts for their stories. Even in statehouses where information ought to be accessible, sleuthing skills are needed to "pry open" doors, reports Erin Jordan of The Society of Environmental Journalists. "No matter the politics of your state, more legislative decisions — including those that affect the environment — seem to be happening behind closed doors. What's a good statehouse reporter to do? Here are some suggestions from a group of environment reporters who have grappled with this challenge."

Tracking big projects: Jeniffer Solis, energy and environment reporter for the Nevada Current/States Newsroom, has recent experience reporting on the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Humboldt County, Nevada. "The project, which sits on the largest-known lithium deposit in the United States and the third largest in the world, could be very lucrative for the state but still must clear regulatory hurdles that generate public records," Jordan reports. 'These projects do have to go through a lot of layers,' Solis says. 'So you can catch them before they get to the federal approval process if you are checking in on your local governments.'

"She recommends looking for water and air quality permits. Projects like these also might require a change in zoning, which often means you can get your hands on an application that includes a description of the project and contact information for the developer, among other details.

When states don't collect data: "Sometimes you need data that states don't track," Jordan writes. "If so, says Julie Cart, environment reporter for CalMatters, it might be because 'they don't want to know things.'. . . Whatever the reason for their lack of data tracking, Cart recommends looking at who has an economic interest in the project.

Pushing for authoritative information: "One of the most iron-clad sources for authoritative, nonbiased information at the state level is what's known in my state, Iowa, as the Legislative Services Agency," Jordan adds. "Your state may have a different name for this group, but it often has a requirement to put aside political beliefs to provide objective information to lawmakers. This frequently includes financial analyses of bills showing how much they would cost if implemented.

"In July 2020, I was so frustrated by a months-long wait to get information about a $50 million cloud computing contract the state had signed that I asked the governor about it at a state park centennial celebration. She apparently wasn't expecting any press at the event and started to walk away from me, saying 'No, no, no!' and waving her hand. It caused more of a stir than if she had just taken time to talk with me. . . . Within 30 minutes, though, her communications director called my cell and asked me exactly what records I needed. He sent them that afternoon. . . . Moral of the story? Sometimes, it helps to show up in person.

Finding comparison states: "We all know how helpful a good case study can be in helping readers understand the effects of new legislation. But don't limit yourself to examples from your state," Jones writes. "Environmental newsletters or digests — I like Midwest Energy News — can point you to related news stories from other states that include potential sources.

Who's behind this bill? "I recommend getting a list of lobbyists and all their clients. Iowa provides this online, but in other states, you may need to ask," Jones reports. "Solis suggests examining campaign donations. 'You can look at whether they got a donation from the company or entity connected to the bill they are trying to pass, she says. . . . I picked up another great idea I plan to use. If it's hard to tell who is driving a new bill in her statehouse, she Googles snippets of language from the bill to see if it pops up in bills from other states."

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