"They say the price of liberty is eternal vigilance," Long says. "No one likes having someone look over his shoulder, but it's really an essential function of our system. Federal agencies necessarily have a lot of power and discretion to go after the bad guys and gals. But that discretion often reflects judgments as to what priorities are. There are only so many resourcesif you emphasize going after drugs, then you don't have resources to go after white-collar crimes. Is that where our money should be spent? It is up to the citizen to decide that. And we can't do that without knowing what is going on."
Since 1996, TRAC has maintained World Wide Web sites containing data from the FBI, IRS, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The sites, filled with maps, graphs, and thousands of tables, are accessible through the main TRAC page at http://trac.syr.edu/. News organizations can register to use another site, TRACFED, to order localized data analyses on almost any federal activities in their area. TRAC also offers a research service for public interest groups and others who need specialized data.
TRAC serves a broad range of clients. "We often get calls from government agencies that find it easier to come to us to get Justice Department data," Long says. Businesses use TRAC to keep tabs on federal regulations. Groups like Morality in Media look for data that support their causes. "We range across the political landscape, from very conservative organizations to liberal, because we are talking about what government does. It is of interest to everyone."
By far the biggest TRAC users are newspapers. Peter Grier of The Christian Science Monitorused TRAC data in a story showing how common it is for both rich and poor to cheat on taxes. Carol Frey of The News and Observerin Raleigh, North Carolina, detailed how the state's audits were lower than the national average, while tax violation convictions were more than twice the norm. Grant Segall of The Plain Dealerin Cleveland, Ohio, used TRAC to discover that Ohioans were the least likely in the nation to be audited, while The Daily News of Los Angeleslearned that L.A. taxpayers were four times more likely to face audits than residents of other large metropolitan areas. Using TRAC's FBI site, Roy Malone of the St. Louis Post-Dispatchfound that Southern Illinois had the highest percentage of drug convictions in the country in 1996, even though its drug trafficking was not especially high.
David Cay Johnston, tax reporter for The New York Times,broke a story about IRS abuses in April 1997so early that he was criticized for not reporting on it when the rest of the country caught up. "Because of TRAC's site we were the first to report the major shift in audit focus by the IRS away from the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations toward the poorest Americans and tiniest businesses," Johnston says. "There's no practical way for a reporter, no matter how good, to gather these data alone."|
John Schmid, who specializes in computer-assisted reporting at the Chicago Sun Times,says he's used TRAC data to write a number of front-page stories on deadline, and the TRAC research service for longer-term projects. One story, on federal drug prosecutions, relied on court data available through TRACFED. "Mayor Daley had been complaining that he wasn't getting enough support from the feds on the war on drugs," Schmid explains. "So I took a look using TRAC data and found that the number of federal drug prosecutions had been declining over the years. It was nice to be able to take a comment by the mayor that may or may not have been true and illustrate that it was true. This was information even the mayor himself didn't have. He was going by what people had told him, but he didn't have the numbers at his fingertips like I did."
Schmid says few web sites offer the wealth of information available from TRAC. "I don't know anybody else out there doing the kind of work TRAC does in making these enormous public databases available for reporters. They are extremely diligent in making sure the data are accurate and easy for reporters to use. In some cases they have spent so much time and effort getting the data in good shape that they've ended up with databases that are better than the agency's original database, which is pretty amazing."
Often, Schmid says, TRAC is the only way to get to the information. "In practical terms, you really couldn't deal with this yourself. Maybe huge outfits like The New York TimesorThe Washington Postwould have the resources and lawyers to deal with reluctant bureaucrats who don't want to give out their data. But the TRAC site makes this information available to any journalist, even at a small paper. So this sort of analysis isn't only being done by the biggest newspapers anymore, thanks to TRAC."
"It's hard to appreciate the amount of work that's gone into getting these data and doing checks to make sure they're as accurate as can be," Burnham says. "Checking against court records and administrative reports and getting the agency's manuals to look at definitions of different phrases-there's a huge amount of work in this, and very few news organizations have the time or inclination to invest that kind of effort."
TRAC obtains its data through the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allows anyone to obtain records from federal agencies. Some agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, cooperate easily. Others, such as the IRS, have been less responsive. "My experience has taught me that just because we have a law doesn't necessarily mean the information is readily accessible," Long says. "There's usually a huge time delay, and you might have to sue the agency. By the time most people get the information, their need for it has passed."