A district spent $2 million on artwork? The story of a story that wasn't a story
Sometimes, journalism involves not reporting things that didn't happen. Here's an example:
The caller, anonymous, was outraged. How, she wondered, could we not report this news? She had just seen a line-by-line audit of her local school district's spending, and it included more than $2 million in spending on artwork for a specific elementary school.
The editor who took her call assured her we were not covering something up. That type of expenditure is certainly something we would consider news, he insisted, and he promised we would check into it. As soon as he hung up, he notified, among others, our tax watchdog editor Jake Griffin. This is the kind of claim that quickly spreads through a newsroom, and it's just the kind of story that activates Griffin's nerve endings. He immediately began digging into an annual Illinois State Board of Education audit required annually of every school district. He was doubtful, of course. He wondered along with others of us just what artwork a school could have that would be worth $2 million, and he couldn't wait to see it, if true.
Alas, within a matter of minutes, he determined it wasn't true. A quick perusal of the school district's property, readily available at the ISBE website, indeed found a line item for artwork, but it included no value. Directly below the item was a line showing $2.1 million in land value. It seemed apparent that the caller had accidentally transposed the lines and drawn a conclusion that her schools were spending an outrageous amount of money on a frivolous matter. Still, the fact that a line item for artwork even existed in the standard audit form piqued Griffin's curiosity, so he began spot checking other area school districts. In every case, he found no artwork spending.
Thus ended the "investigation" of what would have been a blockbuster suburban story. Nothing to see here, folks, because in fact there was nothing to see. But there was something interesting to think about. For one thing, from my perspective as an editor, it seemed worth pointing out that in addition to all the things you see that we do report, especially considering Griffin's work identifying questionable spending by schools and governments, we look into many topics -- some suggested by callers and tipsters, some out of our own interest and observation -- that never lead to news stories. For another, it says something about how people see elected officials when someone can believe so intensely that an agency would spend its money so patently inappropriately. For yet another, it is fortunate our caller didn't have access to or make use of social media, where her outrageous "fact" could have spread like poisonous spores in the wind.
And for still one more, it's noteworthy that she had enough trust in the local newspaper to expect us both to find the truth and to report it.
We did find the truth, but we didn't report it. There was nothing to report. Scientists know there is no such thing as a failed experiment. Futile outcomes help us know what to discard on the way to finding useful ones. In that sense, there is a kind of similarity with news stories. They aren't all worth reporting, but the ones that are come as the result of no small effort to discover those that aren't.