Data Reporter, The Oregonian
Call her a data warrior with a big, heavy stick.
When Carli Brosseau recently left Arizona to become a data reporter at the Oregonian, she packed up her dog, Flora and her hickory-handled sledgehammer. The pooch was her excuse to explore her new Portland neighborhood. The sledgehammer was her incentive to begin bashing away at procedure for Oregon public records disclosure.
Carli got her bad-boy tool from the Arizona Press Club — the Sledgehammer Award — for her dogged pursuit of police records while reporting for the Arizona Daily Star. When told she’d have to pay to use her cell phone to copy thousands of agency records, she appealed to the Arizona Ombudsman. The state attorney general issued an opinion on the matter, and police departments were forced to change their public-records policies.
Like most data ninjas, the 2014 Kiplinger Fellow keys scads of data into spreadsheets and then pores over the number trails to ferret out stories.
“It kind of has this treasure hunt aspect, where you’re searching for something that very rarely gets enough scrutiny,” she said. “ You can describe problems and get closer to a solution because you’re the one who took the time to look closely at it.”
Her work tracking the effects of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070, earned her several journalism awards last year. Compiling data about how often police called border control on suspected illegal aliens was nothing short of a nightmare.
“The Tucson police department didn’t even keep an electronic record,” she said. “They created all these handwritten paper records. It was crazy.”
After months of entering the data, Carli gave the department her spreadsheet, and convinced them to tweak it with more useful information.
“The agency was able to look at what sort of demands (the immigration law) was making on resources and what consequences it was having and actually changed their policies — their public policies but also their internal policy, the data policy.”
Now that she’s in Oregon, Carli must adjust to unfamiliar public records laws that have many more exemptions than those in Arizona. Time to realign her sledgehammer overstrike.
“(Here) you appeal to the DAs. The culture is different. The law is different. The formal process is different, too,” she said. “I mean, I really knew the Arizona law inside and out and I was good at using that. It’s been a little bit of a shock realizing how good I had it.”
A Portland city attorney recently called Carli a “baby reporter” after she requested data documentation related to police databases. The attorney insisted that copyright law trumps public records law in Oregon because private contractors write the documentation.
“Being a female data reporter who is young and not so obviously nerdy works against me in the early stages,” Carli said. “They can’t quite figure out what to make of me and so condescension is an easy tool as a starting point.”
After a lengthy meeting in which she was asked if she really knew what a database is, and really understood what the word “maintain” means, Carli prevailed. The attorney agreed to give her the police dispatch database.
She didn’t have to slam her hammer to get it.