Can you trust government data or even find it? Many are sounding the alarm

Last week, the Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson reported that FEMA removed statistics about drinking water and electricity access in Puerto Rico from its main website. The data was restored two days later, after Johnson’s piece came out.

It wasn’t the first time that the Trump administration has made government data harder for journalists to find. Engadget reported that the administration “scrubbed open.whitehouse.gov of datasets created under the Obama administration” in February. The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which monitors changes to federal environmental agency websites, has noted substantial changes on pages on the EPA, USDA, and HHS websites related to climate change.

This is a worrisome change. Ensuring that data is “reliable, accurate, and accessible” is necessary for both journalists and our democracy, as a panel discussion on “Maintaining the Quality and Integrity of US Government Data” recently noted in its description.

More than 70 journalists and economists came together to hear representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on a panel moderated by Marilyn Geewax, a senior business editor with NPR, and co-chair of the First Amendment Committee for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW).

Since the 2016 presidential election, Geewax has been leading NPR’s coverage of the  conflicts of interest created by President Trump’s business holdings. In her role at SABEW, she has been pushing to protect access to taxpayer-supported data in a hyper-partisan era.  Already she has seen public information disappear from websites, and worries about potential downgrades in data quality.

I asked her about her concerns.

Kramer: Chris Hayes recently tweeted that “We are seeing a really dangerous shut-down of publicly available data from the federal government across a variety of sectors.” What differences have you seen during this administration in terms of access?

Geewax: Journalists aren’t just being paranoid; access to data really has declined since the start of the Trump era. Here are some examples:

— The Independent reports: Public information about the companies importing Ivanka Trump goods to the U.S. has become harder to find. Information that once routinely appeared in private trade tracking data has vanished, leaving the identities of companies involved in 90 percent of shipments unknown.

— Axios reports: An Aug. 31 message — sent by the CDC’s public affairs officer Jeffrey Lancashire — instructs CDC employees not to speak to reporters, “even for a simple data-related question.”  

— In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its website would be “undergoing changes.” Those changes meant the removal of several agency websites offering detailed climate data and scientific information.

— At one point, the Department of Agriculture removed  a massive database of records on animal welfare but there was such an outcry that it reposted the information. Vigilance matters.

Kramer: You moderated that SABEW panel, done with NABE (National Association of Business Economics), about the need to maintain the quality and integrity of U.S. government data. I’m curious about what threats exist in terms of data integrity and quality — which is different from access – for both journalists and economists who use this government data?

Geewax: Here’s my concern: What if we keep receiving, say, BLS’ monthly jobs reports, but the surveys get changed in subtle ways to make the unemployment and wage data look better than they should? Will we know if the numbers are being collected fairly, and presented in responsible ways?

What if questions in the 2020 Census are changed just enough to make it more difficult to figure out how many gay families the country has? There are lots of ways to make data disappear, just by changing or dropping questions.

Bottom line:  It’s not enough to get a government report. You have to get one that is accurate, fair and clearly presented.

Journalists need allies inside government and industry who can let us know when something is breaking bad. That’s why I thought it was important to have journalists and economists meet at the SABEW-NABE panel. I want economists to know: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING to a journalist.

Kramer: How do you and your colleagues currently use government data in your reporting?

Geewax: Government data is at the core of all business journalism. We journalists all rely on government numbers to explain what is happening with employment, GDP, wages, inflation, etc. We could never properly inform citizens about the performance of their elected leaders on economic issues without reliable government data.

Kramer: How are business editors and writers approaching this situation — are there any ongoing efforts to speak about these changes or save existing data?

Geewax: Lots of journalists are engaged on this issue. Free Speech Week is coming up Oct. 16-22, and many organizations are partnering to mark that.

But it’s not just journalists who worry about data quality and access. A long list of groups, representing various types of researchers, sent a letter to the Labor secretary, urging him to “prioritize and work to ensure that BLS funding returns to levels sufficient to cover its varied and vital statistical programs.”

Kramer: Are you seeing any pushback from federal employees?

Geewax: There have been lots of leaks from government employees, and many have resigned or retired. I know from personal experience that some of those former employees can be good sources — helping journalists know what to request via FOIAs.

I might add: On Sept. 7,  the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration issued a report about the IRS’ FOIA procedures. After reviewing FOIA requests, the IG concluded that the IRS had improperly withheld information in about 1 in 7 requests.

Kramer: If the result is that you need to FOIA more or that FOIA requests take longer, how might this affect reporting in terms of costs and time?

Geewax: We always have more news than reporters. Any time that a reporter spends on filing FOIAs, instead of just getting the information on a web site, is time and money wasted. So it’s not good.

Kramer: There were a number of efforts from academics and librarians to archive datasets related to climate and the environment before the new administration started. I’m wondering if there’s anything you or your colleagues at SABEW are thinking or archiving now?

Geewax: ThinkProgress has launched Disappearing Data, a project to recover government data that has disappeared from online. They’ve already filed a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests for disappeared websites.

But journalists won’t have the time or resources to watch everything. That’s why we need to partner with economists, scientists, historians and anyone else who can help preserve and protect taxpayer-supported data.