TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Earth-shaking reporting tips from the pros will have evasive sources quaking

After the devastating Long Beach earthquake of 1933, California swiftly enacted an unprecedented set of construction safety standards requiring new schools to be certified as quake-resistant — and then, according to a 19-month-long investigative report, did very little to see that the standards were followed.

To the contrary, a team of reporters from the nonprofit investigative website California Watch found, the job of certifying schools as earthquake-proof was put in the hands of questionably competent inspectors, and overseen by bureaucrats with cozy ties to the construction companies they were supposed to regulate.

The result? Many thousands of construction projects never got the safety certification required by California’s Field Act — and hundreds more cannot be verified because their inspection files were simply closed due to missing paperwork.

Public schools may be in need of a shake-up — but not the kind that registers on the Richter scale.

The journalists’ April 2011 multimedia package, “On Shaky Ground,” shared the highest award, the IRE Medal, bestowed Monday by the journalism training organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.

The work of the California Watch team, who partnered with journalists from San Francisco’s KQED radio, is breathtaking in its use of every presentation method known to journalism — even a smartphone app to help parents detect whether their kids’ school has been identified as deficiently constructed. But it is old-fashioned public-records journalism that made the findings possible.

Using reports from the State Architect’s office in the California Department of General Services, reporters found 1,100 instances of schools being flagged as potentially earthquake-unworthy with no follow-up by the state.

Other key sources of information included:

  • Maps of predicted earthquake hazard zones prepared by the California Geological Survey, which at times appeared to have been strategically revised to exclude school locations so that the school districts could evade stricter construction standards.
  • Studies by the State Architect’s parent agency, one of which cautioned as early as 2006 that inspectors lacked the independence to make honest judgments about faulty design work because of conflicts-of-interest in their hiring and supervision.
  • Progress reports from a team of state engineers, who admitted that because of short staffing, construction projects were being allowed to proceed with no initial inspection and check-ups by under-qualified inspectors.
  • Environmental impact studies by school contractors, which identified one $52 million Los Angeles-area campus site as a “liquefication zone” that would be unstable in a severe quake.
Each of these is a public record that state and county officials should readily make available for inspection and copying upon request.

Reporters are very good at identifying lapses and weaknesses in government programs, but much less adept at following through to see whether ballyhooed “reform” programs actually work. The narrative thread of the California Watch series — a safety law that detects hazards but fails to provide any means of fixing them — is a theme that can be found almost everywhere.