OPINION: Reporting that safeguards the public’s interest

I’m not going to write this week about President Trump’s rocky relationship with the news media.

I could — it would certainly be timely. Sunday began Sunshine Week, an annual commemoration of the importance of government transparency and access to public information about how government works. The American Society of News Editors, an organization of newspaper and other media leaders, launched Sunshine Week in 2005 to educate the public about dangers of government secrecy and the value of a vigilant watchdog press.

Knowing that, you might expect yet another report about President Trump’s criticism of the news media and the news media’s concern over whether the Trump administration respects the First Amendment.

But I suspect you may be as tired of that topic as I am.

So instead, in honor of Sunshine Week, I am bringing you a sampling of extraordinary newspaper reporting from 2016 that is making a difference in communities across the nation. Many of these special reports are winning wards in national journalism contests for their excellence and impact. These watchdog reports all relied heavily on government records and the kind of government transparency Sunshine Week celebrates and encourages.

In Texas, a shocking investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed that state education officials were systematically limiting special education services for tens of thousands of students.

The practice saved the state billions of dollars but denied needed services to students with disabilities such as learning disorders, mental illness, speech impairment or brain injuries and even students who are blind or deaf. The investigation showed that education officials discouraged testing, urged parents to move their children to private schools and pushed students into a cheaper program that gives them accommodation like sitting at the front of the class or getting extra time on tests.

Nationally, 13 percent of students receive some kind of special education services. In Texas, the number was set at an arbitrary cap of 8.5 percent beginning in 2004, in a program designed to reduce reliance on special services like speech therapy, tutoring and counseling. Schools that exceeded the cap were pressured to reduce their numbers and some were penalized. The numbers dropped quickly and dramatically under the arbitrary cap.

The investigation featured heartbreaking stories, including one of a family who fought for years to get special education services for their daughter before moving to Pennsylvania, where she was quickly offered extra help in school and is now thriving.

The Chronicle’s investigation used data from the Texas Education Agency, the U.S. Department of Education and others, as well as documents and memos relating to the special education enrollment target, efforts schools used to keep students out of special education and documents related to cases of individual students.

Reporter Brian Rosenthal told me in an email that the newspaper also found records showing the state punishing a local school district for “special education over-identification” and numbers showing that the district responded the next year by kicking a third of students out of special education classes.

Federal officials and parents reacted strongly after publication of the investigation and the Texas Education Agency has suspended use of the cap.

In FloridaThe Palm Beach Post used public records to draw attention to an epidemic of individuals dying of heroin overdose or related causes.

“Young mothers who doted on their children lost their lives to the needle; so did young men from wealthy families, Iraq war veterans, lawyers and former drug counselors,” reporter Pat Beall wrote.

“Parents discovered their dead children. A 10-year-old boy found his dead father. An 8-year-old found his dead mother.”

The special report noted that heroin now kills as many young Americans as died at the height of the Vietnam war. But unlike the deaths in Vietnam, which prompted public protesting and death counts on the nightly news, most heroin addicts die without public acknowledgement.

The newspaper sought to change that with an innovative presentation of 216 profiles, one for every death in Palm Beach County in 2015. Reporters compiling the project relied on police reports, autopsies and a statewide database of death records.

Also in Florida, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune used government records to show disturbing inequities in judicial sentencing.

From the series Bias on the Bench: “Half a century after the civil rights movement, trial judges throughout Florida sentence blacks to harsher punishment than whites, a Herald-Tribune investigation found.

They offer blacks fewer chances to avoid jail or scrub away felonies.

They give blacks more time behind bars — sometimes double the sentences of whites accused of the same crimes under identical circumstances.”

The newspaper said state lawmakers over the years have devised numerous systems to create more equitable sentencing. The current system gives defendants points, based on circumstances in the case, and is supposed to strip out bias by judges. It hasn’t worked.

The story relied on tens of millions of records in state databases that track criminal cases and note the points assigned to felons for sentencing. Lawmakers have responded with new proposed legislation to reduce racial disparities in sentencing.

In Illinois, a community newspaper and a dogged reporter revealed questionable financial practices, waste of taxpayer funds and insider dealing at Lincoln-Way School District 210, an affluent suburban education district. Gregory Pratt, at the time a reporter for the Daily Southtown (owned by the same company as the Chicago Tribune, where Pratt currently works) got on the story after the cash-strapped district announced it would close a new school to save money. Digging into district finances, Pratt wrote dozens of stories that revealed pension padding, poor oversight of credit cards, questionable reimbursements to employees and even $45,000 paid to a dog obedience school that had earlier worked to train the superintendent’s dogs.

Pratt filed more than 100 public records requests — those are the formal queries used by both journalists and members of the public to obtain government records.

In California, the Los Angeles Times brought wide exposure to a maddening story — the Pentagon was demanding the return of enlistment bonuses paid to thousands of soldiers, including many who had served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Pentagon had determined the bonuses were improperly paid, in some cases involving fraud by recruiters or payments to soldiers who were not eligible. The soldiers didn’t know the bonuses were improper yet years later were billed by the Pentagon for bonuses of $15,000 and more.

Many were outraged over the Pentagon’s actions, and four days after the story was published the secretary of defense ordered suspension of recovery efforts while the situation was reviewed. Since then, many of the soldiers’ debts have been forgiven.

Reporter David S. Cloud said he learned of the issue after being contacted by a soldier and tracking down others. He explained what he learned in a story in the Times.

“They told a similar story — that they signed up, they took this money because it was offered to them and then a decade later, they were told they owed all this money back,” Cloud said.

Cloud also learned in his reporting that California members of Congress had known about the repayment demand for two years but had taken no action to prevent it.

Government records referenced in the story included government audits, memos and emails.

As a proud member of the press (a descriptor I greatly prefer to the more generic and less reputable “news media”) I cannot imagine our nation without these kinds of news reports that right wrongs and point out when our government can serve us better.

So if you should see yet another story about the news media and President Trump, and find yourself tuning out, I hope you’ll remember that underneath that discussion are real citizens who are relying on the government to serve their needs, treat them fairly and make good use of their taxes. And that our founding fathers wisely recognized that the press also has a role in serving those citizens, by serving as a watchdog of that government.

Happy Sunshine Week – and thank you for your support of the First Amendment.

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