Then the World Wide Web came along. "The web makes it possible to distribute information in an exceedingly cost-effective way," Long says. "Putting a web site up is no small amount of effort, but once it's there a lot of people can access it. Some people are more comfortable using graphics rather than all these numbers. Publishing reports with color graphics is very expensive. Putting up color graphics on the web doesn't add anything to the cost. That has made a huge difference." The dynamic nature of the web allows users to conduct sophisticated statistical analyses through an easy-to-use interface, she says. |
Johnston says TRAC's IRS site offers much more than tax information. "If you're a reporter who writes about regional economics, you can look up every county in your area and get data going back five years on total income and income broken down by wages, dividends, interest, rents, and royalties."
TRACFED, open only to news organizations, takes the web site a step further. It allows users to go beyond posted data and directly access TRAC's huge databases. One component, TRAC Express, provides access to data on actions of the FBI, ATF, DEA, IRS, U.S. Customs Service, and U.S. Postal Service. Users can look at overall enforcement efforts or focus on a particular district or topic. (A look at immigration in the southern district of Texas, for example, shows 648 people were convicted of illegal immigration there in fiscal year 1996.) A second component, TRAC Analyzer, is similar to TRAC Express, but allows users to customize their own data sets and produce even greater detail in reports.
Burnham said a Washington Post reporter recently asked him to look up environmental enforcement activities in eastern Virginia and Maryland, along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Within 15 minutes, Burnham found that Maryland prosecuted many environmental cases, while Virginia did very little. "That's a good story for her," he says. "She can see which agencies are referring the cases, what laws they're using, the percentage of matters being turned down. It's a way to examine this huge discretion prosecutors have, and it's very easy to do."
David M. Rubin, dean of the Newhouse School, considers TRAC an important resource for journalists covering government. Typically, he says, reporters receive information the government has already "massaged" through press releases, press conferences, or official reports. Reporters may interview government officials, he says, but
|"again, you're getting what the official chooses to tell you. It may be true, it may be half true. It may be leaks, it may be spin doctoring." The process makes it difficult for journalists to find accurate and reliable information. "The beauty of TRAC is that it changes the whole relationship," Rubin says. "Journalists don't have to wait for government reports. They don't have to wait for the latest spin. They don't have to wait for a press release. We use the Freedom of Information Act to request from government the actual records of what government is doing. Using the computer, we put these records into a form that allows us to ask questions and then, using journalistic techniques, do our own analysis. Then if you want to interview somebody in government, you don't ask them what they're doing-you tell them what they're doing and make them accountable for it. It's a completely different ethic."|
Rubin sees TRAC as "a wire service for the 21st century," a new form of information distribution for local news media. "Very few news organizations can duplicate what Susan, David, and our students have done," he says. "They don't have the time or the computer expertise to do it. So we're doing it for them and presenting our findings, much of it on the web, so they can either write stories directly from this information or localize it, figure out how what we found fits their area."
Rubin says TRAC benefits the University in several ways. "SU gets a lot of publicity every time TRAC and its findings are out there, such as when they became involved in this effort to reform the IRS," he says. "That's important to the University as it competes with other major universities." TRAC's successful grant-writing efforts have also raised SU's profile in the philanthropic community, Rubin says.
TRAC can teach Newhouse students to be better journalists, Rubin says. It is difficult, however, to make good use of the center in Newhouse's existing computer-assisted investigative reporting class, he says, in part because the students need so much background to get to the point where they can use TRAC. "We hope to start integrating more of TRAC's investigative methods into our classrooms so students can leave here with these techniques better in hand."
Burnham says making information available to journalists is not enough. He and Long believe journalists need to learn how to think about data. "It's not really statistics, but how to see the implications of this stuff," Burnham says. "Like my friend's ideaaverage the number of court cases on Mondays and Fridays and compare that with Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and you'll see they're working three days a week. That's not a thought that pops into your head automatically. But it's a very good idea and it turned out to be a good story. The facts get you over one hurdle. The next hurdle is to have the imagination."
With a grant from the Open Society Institute, Burnham and Long will conduct seminars and live demonstrations of how TRAC can be used. "News organizations tend to focus on what agencies do, and in fact, what agencies announce they do," Burnham says. "Looking at what they don't do is always very hard. Part of the role of a news organization should be to examine the performance of significant bureaucracies. My formula is to examine what stops an agency from achieving its stated goals. You need the numbers to get at that questionhow many people are you arresting, how many of those are being convicted, the whole TRAC business. I don't think the American press does enough of that."