Most journalism is focused on informing readers about “what we know” of a situation or issue, investigative podcast “Why Don’t We Know,” hosted by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Sara Ganim, sheds light on the things purposefully kept hidden from the American public by government institutions — the things we, as citizens, don’t know and more importantly, why.
As a reporter for The Patriot-News, a daily newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Ganim broke the Jerry Sandusky child molestation and Second Mile charity scandals.
She said the podcast, about public education surrounding “data deserts” and government secrecy, was done in collaboration with student journalists as a Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information production.
“Why Don’t We Know” explores “how privacy laws are used to protect government institutions instead of the students they are intended to protect,” Ganim said, adding that universities are intentionally not sharing information.
Through the podcast, Ganim hopes to continue uncovering data gaps within higher learning institutions.
Data deserts prevent journalists from sharing relevant information, because there are gaps in what the institutions report. Universities, for instance, told these journalists there were limited or no records for concussion rates or sexual assault claims.
The team’s starting point was over 700 public records requests, from universities to state departments of education, but Ganim noted it was not as easy as they expected to get the information.
It was hard, Ganim said, “because universities don’t keep apples to apples data so it was incomparable.”
Ganim stressed that they relied on the numbers to get started, but that the bigger picture of the podcast came from what they were unable to get from institutions.
Gabriella Paul, a recent University of Florida graduate specializing in data journalism, reported for the podcast and was the project’s data visualization producer.
Paul said journalists should keep an open mind about data journalism, calling it “something meaningful to add to your reporting.” She said finding what data and institution records already exist can help journalists come up with stories.
Frank LoMonte, the executive producer of “Why Don’t We Know,” is a media lawyer who runs the Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at The University of Florida.
“While this looks like a well-oiled machine now,” he said. “This took a lot of trial and error.”
LoMonte said the journalists received 42 requests for fees after submitting Freedom of Information Act requests during the podcast’s first season, which would have cost over $26,000 if fully paid out.
“Do push back on that,” he said. “You do find that agencies will load that bill up. It’s like buying a new car — start haggling. Only suckers pay sticker price.”
Privacy laws are often not applied correctly, said LoMonte. A common “excuse,” he said, is “the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act excuse,” meaning agencies blame FERPA — a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records — to get away with not sharing vital information.
“What we want to do is tell the story of the absence of data,” he said, noting that shaming can sometimes cause records to “magically appear.”
LoMonte encouraged journalists to continue the work “Why Don’t We Know” spearheaded, in looking for hidden or uncollected data.
“Part of what we were most hoping to accomplish by giving this project legs is to inspire others to localize this work,” he said.