Editor’s note: Annually, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy awards the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting to a stellar investigative report that has had a direct impact on government, politics and policy at the national, state or local levels. Six reporting teams have been chosen as finalists for the 2020 prize, which carries a $10,000 award for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. This year, as we did last year, Journalist’s Resource is publishing a series of interviews with the finalists, in the interest of giving a behind-the-scenes explanation of the process, tools, and legwork it takes to create an important piece of investigative journalism. Journalist’s Resource is a project of the Shorenstein Center, but was not involved in the judging process for the Goldsmith Prize finalists or winner. Due to precautions around coronavirus, the Goldsmith Awards ceremony, originally scheduled for March 12, has been canceled. The winner will be announced soon.
Despite multiple U.S. federal government agencies recommending that homes have functioning carbon monoxide detectors, a 2019 NBC News investigation found that federally funded housing was held to a lower standard.
Journalists Suzy Khimm and Laura Strickler analyzed thousands of pages of federal regulations to determine that carbon monoxide detectors were not required in any of the 4.6 million homes that receive federal rental subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
They also compiled and verified a national tally of carbon monoxide deaths in HUD housing, using lease documents, Freedom of Information Act requests for police reports and federal housing contracts, searches in HUD property databases, and interviews with retired housing officials and family members of the deceased. They found that at least 13 residents of HUD housing have died from carbon monoxide poisoning since 2003; carbon monoxide poising poses a higher risk to HUD housing residents than the general population.
The count was the first of its kind. Carbon monoxide deaths in federally funded housing were not being tracked by federal agencies, local housing authorities, academics or public health researchers.
After the first part of the investigation was published on March 1, 2019, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives took swift action in the following weeks, introducing bills to require carbon monoxide detectors in public housing. In April, HUD announced that it would draft a federal requirement for carbon monoxide detectors in public housing.
Khimm says she began the investigation on a tip from a source, who alerted her to two deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning that occurred in a South Carolina public housing complex.
“I’m based in DC, and I focus on investigating federal agencies and the impact that their policies have on ordinary people,” Khimm says. “The first question that occurred to me when I first heard about the carbon monoxide deaths in South Carolina: Was there an oversight failure that put these residents at risk? What are the federal protections? Are there any federal protections, surrounding carbon monoxide issues in federally assisted properties? What is the federal role in all this?
“A lot of people were asking questions, important questions, about the local oversight of the property for the local housing authority in South Carolina, their maintenance, their property management. But, at that point in time, no one was asking the questions about HUD, about the federal oversight of these properties. So that was really how this investigation got started.”
We asked Khimm over phone and email about how she and her reporting partner, Strickler, got the story. Khimm’s responses, which provide helpful suggestions and reporting tips for journalists, were edited for length and clarity.
Confirming the absence of something can be harder than confirming the presence of something.
“Sometimes in reporting, you’re not looking for the presence of something — you’re trying to confirm the absence of something. And sometimes that can be even more difficult, because we were basically trying to prove a negative; we were trying to prove that something doesn’t exist,” Khimm explains. “That really did take a lot of legwork. A lot of our prior knowledge, prior investigative reporting into housing inspection standards, really proved to be key in terms of learning how to decipher what HUD’s inspection regimen should have looked like with respect to carbon monoxide.
“The quality of a health and safety inspection begins with the underlying standards. What is really being measured? You have to examine the actual standards and protocol for conducting inspections. What about enforcement of those standards? If an inspector finds serious problems, what’s supposed to happen next — and what actually did happen next?
“The ownership, management and oversight of federally subsidized housing is really complex and opaque. Different types of properties are held to different federal health and safety standards depending on their financial structure and ownership — whether it’s traditional public housing or a privately owned property that accepts Section 8 vouchers, for instance. For each set of standards and inspection protocol, we homed in on the specific sections and subsection regarding air quality, regarding things like smoke detectors and the gas-fired appliances that can emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
“… You do the initial reporting and deep dive into the research, then go back and confirm your findings with other documents and sources to understand what the health and safety standards are, how inspections actually work, and what inspectors are actually looking at. To help back up what we were finding, we looked at the actual inspection checklists and individual inspection reports, in order to examine the criteria that inspectors were actually using to gauge the health and safety of a federally subsidized home. And we talked to people actually doing this work in the field.”
When reporting on and evaluating government standards, compare them with other existing standards.
“In terms of thinking about standards, and how do you go about evaluating standards and especially standards for health and safety, whether or not they’re good enough or adequate — how do we answer that question?
“I think one way to go about doing that is to look at other examples.
“For example, there’s something called the International Fire Code, which a lot of not only countries, but individual states or municipalities, local governments, might use as a basis for their building codes.
“The International Fire Code requires carbon monoxide detectors for homes that have gas fired appliances, and there’s specific language that they use, specific things that they require. So that is one thing that that I looked at in terms of thinking about what could possibly be missing from federal regulations.
“The other thing that we found in our reporting was the fact that other government agencies, the major safety bodies of the U.S. government, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and HUD’s own Department of Healthy Homes, both of those bodies recommend carbon monoxide detectors. So in other words, the U.S. government itself recommends that all residents, regardless of whether you live in federally subsidized housing or not, install corporate monoxide detectors in the home. Yet the standards that HUD uses for some of the most vulnerable and poorest families in the country do not include that standard.”
Make multiple requests through different sources for the same documents.
“Every time I file a federal FOIA request, I always think about other ways in which I could get the same documents from somewhere else, because more likely than not, I will be able to get a faster response if I go outside the federal government than going to the federal government.
“If you’re looking for HUD records, that could mean going to the person who owns that property, so that could be a local housing authority, it could be a private landlord. There could be various other folks who’ve seen that information, and try to go through them. That could be going through local or state governments, which also tend to be more responsive and quicker than the federal government or could just be a private individual, people that you just have to find some way to appeal to and to talk to them.”
When trying to find specific information, consider all the forms it might take. And create Google Alerts.
“I create Google Alerts for every project that I’m working on and keep checking them for weeks, months or even years later, just in case something pops up. I had a Google Alert for ‘carbon monoxide’ that pulled up any kind of related news stories.
“The couple that had died in Michigan, the initial local news on that did not say anything about them living in a federal assisted property. There was no mention of HUD, there was no mention that they had received rental subsidies, there was nothing there. There was also no mention of whether there were carbon monoxide detectors or not in their home.
“So basically, it took my going through their family and their lawyer and then going through the piles of legal documents and other financial paperwork and other things that the couple had left behind after they had died to determine whether or not they had actually received rental subsidies and that their unit was specifically under HUD’s oversight.”
“A lot of times, there might have been initial reports that there was a carbon monoxide incident. [But] it might not have been verified, at the time, that that was actually the cause of death. So it entailed us going to the coroner’s office, asking for and trying to confirm the cause of death, going through the local housing authority, asking them about this death that had happened years and years ago, what the residents’ names were, and then getting the details from the specific properties where these deaths might have happened.
“In some cases, we had to appeal to individual family members to confirm that their relatives had in fact been living in federally subsidized housing at the time of their death; there are privately owned properties that are subject to federal oversight and safety inspections, but which are not immediately identifiable as ‘public housing.’ This could be very challenging as family members did not always want to relive the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths; carbon monoxide poisoning typically happens very suddenly and without warning.
“It was a combination of shoe-leather reporting, digging through public records and looking through archives. Early on, we did an extensive Nexis search that provided clues to help guide our reporting into individual carbon monoxide incidents, but that was just the beginning of our process.
“I did a very broad canvas of folks in the advocacy world, in academia, at HUD, trying to see whether anyone was keeping track of these deaths. It turns out that they were not, but some of them did have some helpful leads into cases that they’d heard about in the past.”
Convey the potential impact of your reporting to reluctant sources, like family members of victims.
“I think it helps to be patient, to make an appeal without expecting an immediate response — telling folks, please take all the time you need to think about this, please discuss it with your family. Also, be willing to talk to them off the record or on background first, being open-ended about the form in which you are willing to talk to them.
“I do think it’s a mixture of just being respectful and tactful, but persistent, reaching out to folks, and also just being honest with them about why you’re doing this reporting, you know, why are you telling this story? What are the bigger questions you’re trying to answer? And why do they matter? And what are you hoping to get out of the story?”
Humanize a wonky story.
“When you’re reporting on something that involves a lot of bureaucracy, and confusing policy details and complex issues, I think that means that the storytelling piece is even more important.
“I think especially for these kinds of wonkier issues, I think it’s even more important to convey a sense of the community, the people being affected, a sense of the place and the human stakes. I think that was a really critical component for our story in terms of telling it in a compelling way that really explained the human impact of these federal policies.”
Realize the potential to nationalize a local story.
“One thing that has surprised me in terms of reporting on an agency like HUD and an issue like housing is how often social policies that affect some of the most vulnerable people in the country, and that have federal dollars and oversight attached to them, are treated as strictly local issues rather than national ones.
“If you can find the chain of accountability and follow that through as thoroughly as possible, that’s really important, whether you’re a local reporter or a national reporter.
“It’s another way of following the money — there are federal rules, regulations, and oversight that are often attached to federal funding. It’s really important and will make sure that everyone who is responsible for some degree of oversight is being actually held responsible.”