The Power Of Publicly Available Information
June 12, 2019

The Power Of Publicly Available Information

These days, following the news closely can make it seem like the truth is unknowable. Political bias, use of anonymous sources, and outright fake news cause many people to doubt anything they read or hear, even if it is from a reliable mainstream source. But there is still one tool that can make a report undeniable: publicly available information, or what some colloquially refer to as “the receipts.”

When a story is backed up by these bare facts, whether that is a tax form, government data, or even a flight record, its basis cannot be refuted. Recent years have seen countless examples of reporting based on these types of public documents.

In 2017, Politico used forms that nonprofit entities are required to file with the IRS to break a big story about giving at nonprofit hospitals. By studying these filings, Politico was able to determine that charity giving at these tax-exempt hospitals was down despite huge increases in their revenue. It was bad publicity for an industry increasingly under scrutiny over their tax-exempt status.

In another case, the Wall Street Journal used payment data published online by CMS in a long investigative piece, which showed insurance companies were up-charging to keep extra cash from Medicare.

And in a far simpler but still impactful story, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported last year that a political candidate had traveled to a meeting with faith leaders via a private plane owned by a strip-club owner. Their source was an FAA record that anyone can see online.

What makes public information powerful is its simplicity and fairness. None of the unfortunate subjects of these stories could deny the facts of the story, because readers could pull up the records and see for themselves. But while public information is available to anyone, the trick is knowing where to look and when. Tax filings, government data, and other information can be convoluted, and an untrained eye may not even see the story when they read the receipts.