Sept. 22, 2017

Best of the States

Request denied? Sunshine Hub sheds light on state efforts to block public access

Beyond its dramatic effects, the audio from 911 calls can provide the kind of context that is essential to the public's understanding of what happened during a newsworthy crime or emergency. Those recordings are, with few exceptions, a matter of public record. That almost changed this year in Iowa, where the state House passed – unanimously – a bill that would end the public's ability to access many 911 calls. The bill eventually died after an outcry from the media, watchdog groups and civil rights organizations, but it was not unusual. A months-long project by AP reporters and data journalists found more than 150 bills introduced in state legislatures this year that were intended to eliminate or limit public access to a wide range of government records and meetings.

To help reporters find, track and provide input on those bills, Serdar Tumgoren and Seth Rasmussen of the data team created a unique online tool that provided full access to AP customers.

Called the Sunshine Hub, it helps users keep track of legislative activity related to government transparency, suggest new bills, search for and categorize bills for research purposes, and discuss legislation with others. The Sunshine Hub directly complemented stories by Ryan Foley in Iowa, Andrew DeMillo in Arkansas and Laurie Kellman in Washington.

For their groundbreaking reporting and software development, Tumgoren, Rasmussen, Foley, DeMillo and Kellman win this week's Best of the States award.

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April 20, 2018

Best of the States

AP's 50-state analysis: State legislatures lack public records of sexual misconduct claims

As the #MeToo movement spread to state capitols, AP statehouse reporters filed uniform FOIA requests with every legislature seeking information about past sexual misconduct cases and payouts to victims. The coordinated effort, overseen by State Government Team reporter David Lieb, produced some interesting numbers: roughly 70 complaints and nearly $3 million in sexual harassment settlements over the past decade.

But the real story was the information that wasn’t released.

In fact, a majority of states would not disclose records related to sexual misconduct among lawmakers. The most common response was that they had received no such complaints over the past decade, did not keep a record of any such complaints or were not legally bound to disclose the records. But Lieb's research revealed that even states with documented cases of lawmaker sexual harassment were not releasing records about those allegations – and potentially others.

Lieb worked with data editor Meghan Hoyer to organize and analyze the responses from our statehouse reporters in every state. The resulting spreadsheet was distributed to AP bureaus and customers weeks ahead of publication to allow for localizations. AP reporters in 19 states did just that, producing sidebars that in many cases landed on A1.

The mainbar and the state-by-state list of accused lawmakers received wide interest on the APNews app. The story also landed on at least 20 front pages.

For their 50-state accountability project on a topic that continues to rattle state capitols, Lieb and Hoyer win this week’s Best of the States award.

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March 29, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

Public records reveal social spending by New Mexico’s governor

for using the state’s public records laws to obtain an accounting of social spending by New Mexico’s newly elected governor that revealed a $3,600 brunch and receipts for dry cleaning, Perrier and prosciutto.The records are an early indication that Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is making good on promises be open and candid about her administration, in keeping with new disclosure rules that went into effect Jan. 1. https://bit.ly/2UV8B8l

April 05, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

APNewsBreak: Records request reveals pardons by ex-governor, expedites policy change

for using Maine’s open records law to reveal the names of more than 100 people pardoned by former Gov. Paul LePage. A 2017 law prohibited law enforcement agencies from releasing the names of pardoned individuals, but Villeneuve noted that the secretary of state’s office, which is custodian of the list, is not a law enforcement agency. Her request under the Freedom of Access Act led to the release of the names and an executive order by the current governor reversing the 2017 policy. https://bit.ly/2UhnxSa

July 10, 2020

Best of the States

Joint investigation details hollowed-out US public health departments

While it is widely understood that U.S. public health departments have suffered budget cuts over the years, a collaborative AP/Kaiser Health News team used data and deep reporting to show exactly how expansive those cuts have been.

The investigation by AP’s Michelle Smith, Meghan Hoyer and Mike Householder, teamed with KHN’s Lauren Weber, Laura Ungar, Hannah Recht and Anna Maria Barry-Jester, drew on data from disparate sources and interviews with more than 150 people to reveal a system starved of money and staff for years, and facing more cuts amid the worst health crisis in a century. 

The team’s all-formats package drew kudos and high-profile reaction from health officials, to the halls of Congress, to editorial pages.

For an ambitious story that laid bare the state of America’s public health system, the joint AP/KHN team of Smith, Hoyer, Householder, Weber, Ungar, Recht and Barry-Jester shares this week’s Best of the States award.

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Dec. 24, 2020

Best of the States

Joint investigation reveals ‘leadership vacuum’ after backlash against public health officials

AP reporter Michelle Smith was working on another project in June when she came up with the names of a dozen or so public health officials who had quit, retired or been fired. Sensing a trend, Smith and reporters at Kaiser Health News continued to track those departures as the pandemic worsened and the backlash against public health restrictions became more strident.

The journalists contacted officials in all 50 states and interviewed dozens of people, finding a public health leadership vacuum developing at a critical time in the pandemic. They told the stories of public servants who toiled through the pandemic only to be reviled by their neighbors — including the wrenching story of an official whose husband would not even follow her recommendation to require masks in the family store. The timely all-formats story included a data distribution, interactive graphics and a sidebar with portraits and quotes of public health officials. 

For a deeply reported package that examines a vital component of the pandemic response, Smith, Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber earn this week’s Best of the States award.

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July 27, 2018

Best of the States

Private messaging apps used for official business test open records laws

Smart phone private messaging apps are great for keeping secrets. The apps delete messages almost immediately and do not allow them to be saved, copied or captured with a screenshot.

But what about use of the apps by government officials and elected representatives? State Government Team reporter Ryan Foley spotted a trend of public officials increasingly using such apps for official business. It’s a trend that alarms advocates for open government, who say it undermines state laws designed to ensure transparency and access to records.

Foley’s research was based in large part on use of a new legislative tracking tool called the Sunshine Hub that was developed by AP Data Team members Serdar Tumgoren and Seth Rasmussen. The tool allowed Foley to see whether bills addressing the trend were being introduced in state legislatures across the country. And indeed they were.

The resulting story won play on more than two dozen front pages and prompted several editorials, including one in The Columbus Dispatch warning that officials’ use of message-vanishing apps was the same as destroying public records.

For their efforts in exposing a potentially dangerous anti-transparency trend among government officials, and developing a unique tool to track it, Foley, Tumgoren and Rasmussen win the Best of the States award.

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Jan. 10, 2020

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP analysis reveals record year for mass killings

for an authoritative story that quantified just how much bloodshed there was around the U.S. in 2019, harnessing the power of an AP collaboration and database access. The pair determined that there were more mass killings in 2019 than any year since at least the 1970s. They also did a data distribution that allowed newspapers to localize stories, and Pane tracked down a survivor of one of the killings to put a human face on the story. https://bit.ly/2Nd5M0F

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Aug. 28, 2020

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP: Records show businesses swayed governors on reopening

worked with his AP statehouse colleagues in every state to reveal how businesses influenced governors’ decisions on when to reopen state economies during a critical period of the coronavirus pandemic. AP obtained thousands of pages of emails through public record requests filed over several months in all 50 states. In a number of those states, governors overruled public health recommendations at the behest of business interests, only to have to reverse those decisions as COVID cases flared. The story received heavy play, and some AP bureaus added state-specific sidebars for their AP members. https://bit.ly/3hN27UN

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