Industry Insight: Newsrooms Need an NSA-Like System for Monitoring the Government

By: Matt DeRienzo

Federal government agencies such as the NSA or CIA use some tactics that are pretty familiar to journalists when attempting to gain intelligence about an organization, a group of people or a geographic region as a whole. They rely on human “sources,” whose help they cultivate through the building of relationships through some combination of trust and mutual self-interest.

But as we have learned from Edward Snowden’s revelations and the scrutiny sparked by them, intelligence agencies long ago recognized the value of a more systemic approach to “listening.”

Why shouldn’t newsrooms be turning the tables and applying the same kind of blanket effort to track the activities, actions and/or inaction of public officials? A reverse NSA, if you will.

We can agree (looking at you, News Corp.’s UK papers), hopefully, that hacking into private conversations is immoral.

But newsrooms need a much more rigorous and comprehensive approach to monitoring government information that’s either already in the public domain or subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And we should be looking for a technology-assisted, at least partially automated, big data approach to analyzing the patterns and connections in that information.

Nothing can replace the value of having a well-placed source inside the local police department who will tip you off if the chief is fixing the mayor’s daughter’s parking tickets. But even in newsroom glory days, those sources were never comprehensive or foolproof.

First, does your newsroom have a handle on the type and flow of information that government has or deals with? What records does it keep? What is government required to measure and keep track of? (Or in the case of potential police overreach, what is it measuring and keeping track of that perhaps it shouldn’t be). How does correspondence—formal and informal—typically work, and is it changing in ways off your radar screen? Is government business being conducted via text message or in a Slack discussion group? What is specifically exempted under your state’s Freedom of Information Act and what is “public?” And do you need to change what you’re asking for routinely or when investigating specific leads?

Other than reacting to a human tip or instinct that there’s something to be found, or random, general fishing for information that might contain a story or be meaningless, what is the newsroom’s strategy for monitoring government data and documents?

There are stories to be found in the patterns and connections that exist in the mountains of information that we don’t quite know how to reasonably access and analyze. So what if newsrooms created filters to run this information through—something that catches telling turns of phrase in official correspondence, or unusual amounts of money running through the city government checkbook.

What if the newsroom created an internal tagging system of metadata that showed reporters the links between people you write about? This city councilor is the brother-in-law of that businessman who won the snow plowing contract, and his wife is on the board of directors of the nonprofit that just got a cut-rate deal on renting the municipal parking lot.

These are the things we have expected veteran reporters to just know over the years. That never truly covered us anyway, and the loss of institutional memory in the newsroom begs for a more consistent approach.

In Florida, the Tampa Bay Times has built a system that emails the newsroom every time the name of a public figure shows up on an arrest log. They built a system that automatically checks a preloaded list of names (local politicians, teachers, athletes) against new arrests.

The Politwoops Twitter account is a bot that captures and posts the information every time a prominent politician deletes a tweet. It has caught many in embarrassing mistakes and newsworthy backtracks.

For newsrooms who lack the programming skills or time to build automated tools like that, identifying what kind of information you consistently want to check and having a plan to do so is a good starting point.

Newsrooms can learn a lot from Atul Gawande’s book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” which uses the examples of the airline industry and hospital operating rooms to make the case for the simple (and free) use of checklists to ensure that complex tasks are handled consistently.

Many newsrooms have a reporter running down a list of cop calls each morning in the various communities they cover. Why not a checklist that prompts reporters to do a background check involving x, y and z for every candidate for local office, or for each business that is about to enter into a big taxpayer-funded contract? Or a set schedule for checking planning department files, or reviewing school department expenditures, or tracking the last time major contracts went out to bid?

If our job was to protect our clients from potentially dangerous and corrupt organizations that have tremendous power over their wallets and their liberty, would we really sit back and rely on the instincts of a dwindling corps of less-experienced reporters, random whistleblowing and tips?

Well, isn’t that our job? Shouldn’t we use technology, mindset and process to cast a wider net?

Matt DeRienzoMatt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.

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Published: July 22, 2016

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