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Sarah Palin's emails: how journalism can benefit from cooperation and crowdsourcing

Sarah Palin's emails: how journalism can benefit from cooperation and crowdsourcing

On Friday 10 June the state of Alaska released 24,199 pages of emails that Sarah Palin sent and received during her first 22 months' tenure as governor of Alaska.
Mother Jones, msnbc.com and ProPublica are partnering in publishing an online searchable archive of the emails.

As Mother Jones reported, this saga began with a request that David Corn, Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief, made almost three years ago.
As Corn reported, when John McCain chose Palin in 2008 as his vice in the presidential election running, reporters started a rush in digging into her past looking for interesting information.

Even before that time, in June 2008, Andrée McLeod, a citizen activist in Alaska, used the state's open-records law to request emails sent to and from two Palin's top aides to investigate the pair's political behaviour during official business hours.

You can have a look to the different states' Freedom of Information statues on the Freedom of Information (FOI) Center.

Intrigued by the story, David Corn thought that, as the governor's office withheld portions of the documents and redacted others protected by "executive or deliberative process" privileges, it could be more interesting to investigate what was withheld, rather than what was released.

On September 2008 Corn filed a request with the state for "all emails send and received by Palin" during her entire tenure as governor. Other media outfits submitted related requests but, as Corn wrote on the Guardian, he was the only one to ask for the whole pile.

So, how is that possible that the request was filed in September 2008 and emails have been released three years later - Alaska state agencies are supposed to have 10 days to fulfil a request, ProPublica noted - and what is there of interest within these huge amount of papers?

Literally, papers - accordingly to ProPublica, the state said it didn't have the technology to redact the emails electronically and so the emails now fit in six boxes and weigh 250 pounds per set.

Reporters load boxes containing Palin's email records in Juneau. Photograph: Brian Wallace/AP (Source: the Guardian)

"Alaska's decision to provide only paper copies has been puzzling. While nothing in the state's public records law requires the state to provide records in electronic form, public agencies are "encouraged" to "make information available in usable electronic formats to the greatest extent feasible." Though government agencies have fumbled on redactions in the past, software certainly exists to safely redact electronic data. (We do it all the time)", ProPublica wrote.

However, several newspapers are now scanning the whole pile and make it available online

Amongst others, the New York Times collected the emails and organized them by the date of each conversation here; you can find the ProPublica's reader's guide to the emails here and the Guardian section here. You can find as well the Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz's answer to criticism of the paper coverage of the Palin emails here.

So why a three-year wait?

First the governor's office claimed questions of costs and time in collecting the all material and deciding what to redact and withhold - media outlets at the beginning were supposed to pay a fee of $2,249.46 and additional costs for copying, then cut down to the final $725 per news organization. The state's Department of Law devoted a team of six attorneys and four paralegals and associate attorneys on the case.

To complicate the matter, Sarah Palin used a number of private emails accounts to conduct state business - ProPublica reported - complicating the process of sorting out which emails were truly private and which should be a matter of public record. As Corn protested that an at least improper use of a private account shouldn't affect newspapers and citizens right to know, they finally proceeded in fulfilling the request.

Now that the material has been released, what's interesting is on the one hand to find out what has been not, as the state said that it withheld 2,353 pages and the released documents contain redactions and at the other hand to dig into the 24,199 pages released.

Some potential issues have been already identified, as the so-called "Troopergate", when Palin and her husband were accused of having pressured a state employee to fire a state trooper and then, when he refused, firing himself. Or the "Bridge to Nowhere" constructions project.

What the Palin email saga shows however is how useful collaborative journalism can be for the quality of information as different newspapers first chased up the governor's office to released the documents and then partnered analysing the entire pile, as ProPublica, Mother Jones, msnbc.com did.

Not only collaboration within news organizations however plays an important role in this story. Citizens and crowdsourcing can now definitely play their part in digging into a so vast and sometimes specific material. ProPublica, The Guardian and The New York Times, among others, are encouraging citizens to get on board. ProPublica is sharing what readers find using the hashtag #palinemail on Twitter.

As Corn concluded, as a Palin's active participation in the presidential campaign is becoming a possibility, perhaps the Palin emails are arriving at an appropriate time. "The request I placed during the last presidential campaign might end up affecting the current one", he said.

Sources: Mother Jones, Guardian (1), (2), (3), ProPublica, New York Times
Second Image Source: Guardian - Photograph: Brian Wallace/AP



Federica Cherubini


2011-06-13 18:30

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