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Long form journalism and government information

I’ve been heartened by a recent string of long-form journalism that’s been making a buzz, provoking change, and bringing attention and insight to important issues. As it happens, these pieces often draw heavily upon government information. Examples include the Washington Post’s series Top Secret America, outlining the growth of security and intelligence in a post-9/11 America; and The Runaway General, Rolling Stone’s profile of General Stanley McChrystal, which led to his firing for disparaging comments he and his aides made about the administration. In both cases, government information illuminates the exploration of current, pressing issues in the news.

I’ve often been frustrated with standard editorial practice of mentioning, but not completely citing, the particular documents referred to in newspaper articles. It masks the ubiquity of government information in our daily lives, and sets up a barrier to readers who might be interested in examining the original documents themselves (and can make it challenging for a librarian to track it down when the patron seeks assistance). For example, in The Transformer, Foreign Policy’s recent story on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which fostered speculation that he might retire before the end of Obama’s first term, author Fred Kaplan refers to a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee early in Obama’s presidency in which Gates testified. This would be findable enough, but would require more tenacity than a casual reader might muster.

The Washington Post’s recent piece, How the Minerals Management Service’s partnership with industry led to failure, is a great example of journalists harnessing the possibilities of the online environment to enhance the reading experience and access to related documents. In this long piece on the too-cozy relationship between regulators and industry, the journalists not only tell readers exactly which documents they used in their reporting, they link to highlighted, annotated full-text of primary sources used in the story, such as a memo from the Inspector General to the Secretary of the Interior on investigations of MMS employees. This supplements the story by giving the reader routes for further exploration, as well as a genealogy of the story that gives more transparency to the journalism itself.

Creating an annotated map, pointing back to the primary documents used to inform a journalist’s narrative, would be a great exercise for students studying government information, journalism, librarianship, indeed citizenship, to raise awareness of the life cycle of government information and what can happen when it is unleashed in the public square.

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