New Paths to Buried Treasure

  • Traditionally, investigative reporters have relied on shoe leather and patience to ferret out the proverbial smoking gun. However, in the computer age, newsmen are enlisting the machine with dramatic results:

    In Providence, the Journal-Bulletin used an IBM 4381 to analyze 30,000 low- interest mortgages issued by the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corp. By matching mortgage issue dates with the bond issue that financed them, the machine helped expose a "secret fund" that apparently was used to give out RIHMFC loans to politically connected people like the daughter of former Governor J. Joseph Garrahy (who has since returned the loan). Following the revelations in the Journal-Bulletin, the Fleet National Bank and 24 individuals were indicted.

    At the Milwaukee Journal, Reporter Nina Bernstein heard that undefended indigents were being jailed for months because they could not pay $100-to-$300 fines for offenses like jaywalking. She went after the story, helped by clerks who fed records of 899 inmates through a computer. Says Bernstein: "I interviewed the judges last and presented them with the evidence, and they were stunned." The courts freed hundreds of inmates, threw out 20,000 orders for jail commitment and told the county to provide attorneys for poor defendants. The computer's statistics, says Bernstein, "made our case airtight." She adds that without the machine, her work would have required up to a year of research rather than the six weeks it took.

    In 1985 Reporter Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News joined with Computer Wizard and Free-Lance Reporter Larry Makinson to trace campaign contributions given to local officials. They uncovered a nest of questionable schemes, including one to funnel 20 seemingly independent $1,000 contributions to a single state senator in one day. "Without the computer," says Makinson, "this information would have remained buried like a treasure chest at the bottom of the sea."

    This week Bernstein and the Milwaukee Journal as well as Makinson and Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News are being recognized for their high-tech digging ! with awards from an association called Investigative Reporters & Editors, with headquarters at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Says I.R.E. Executive Director Steve Weinberg: "The computer is revolutionizing investigative reporting. There's just no way you could do some of those calculations by hand."

    The acknowledged guru of the computer movement is Philip Meyer, 55, now professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Meyer first used a computer as an investigative tool when he was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, analyzing the demographics of blacks in Detroit's 1967 riots. He had previously worked on a computer while on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. Says Meyer: "Harvard had an IBM 7090, and I learned to apply it to social science." Meyer's findings on the riots helped the Free Press win a Pulitzer. It also inspired him to write Precision Journalism, a computer reporters' bible that came out in 1973. Among the first reporters to turn to the machine were the Philadelphia Inquirer's Donald Barlett and James Steele. They used an IBM for a 1973 series that won two national awards for revealing disparate court sentencing of violent offenders. "If we did that story all by hand," says Steele, "we'd still be working on it." But, he cautions, "the computer does not take the place of traditional reporting, analysis or pavement pounding. It's just another tool."

    The prime uses: archival scanning that once required exhaustive card- catalog searches and high-speed analysis of myriad numbers until the machine kicks out revelatory patterns. In 1979, for instance, the Miami Herald scanned with a computer all 2 million of Dade County's property-tax assessments to dig out inequities. In 1984 Long Island's (N.Y.) Newsday parsed every state- awarded highway contract in the area and all major county sewer contracts over eleven years to discover that five favored firms collected 86% of the boodle.

    The plethora of public records that local governments now store on magnetic tape for their own computers greatly widens the field for inquiring reporters. The Providence Journal-Bulletin has compiled a library of computer tapes that includes the record of every criminal defendant who has appeared in Rhode Island Superior Court in the past nine years, as well as the state's entire fiscal records for 2 1/2 years. With this data base, the paper has uncovered coercive tactics used by some canvassers in the state's mail-in electoral ballots and has revealed that a total of 6,033 arsons in 1982 resulted in only 19 jail sentences. "The power of this thing is unbelievable," says Journal- Bulletin Reporter Elliot Jaspin. "Newspapers are either going to start doing what we do, or they're going to be bypassed and out of date."