Today’s front-page series, Unequal Justice, would not have been possible without the moonlighting work of a county employee. And that’s got some in the agency upset.
The project has roots from when Kate Willson was a cub reporter for the McMinnville News-Register in the mid-2000s, sitting in a courtroom and watching a Latino go through the criminal justice process.
“I remember thinking, I bet it wouldn’t be this way if this guy was white,” Willson says.
But how could anyone know? The only way would be to analyze all court records in the state to see if there were systemwide disparities.
The years passed and Willson became an international investigative journalist, developing computer-assisted reporting skills.
She returned to Portland to work for Willamette Week, but in September 2014 she left the hectic journalism lifestyle to work for Multnomah County.
“You leave journalism, and you have a normal job that pays you enough to buy a little condo,” Willson says. “You have enough money, but you also have enough time,” she found, to do on the side the sort of journalism that she wanted to do.
So she kept following up on a public records request she made while at Willamette Week. In August 2015, more than a year after her request, she got the data. She paid $1,200 for the statewide court records and bought a server to store them on. She brought the project to InvestigateWest, which developed a larger collaboration.
Combing through the data became a bit of an obsession. Willson conservatively estimates she spent 30 hours a week on it since she got it, not even taking off time for holidays.
“The amount of time it took me to look at the data, understand the data and clean the data … who has time as a journalist to do that?” she wonders.
During the day, she was a writer for the county’s communications team, primarily working with refugees and immigrants. At night, Willson worked on a project that would expose criminal justice racial disparities in the state — including the county that employs her.
“When I started this, I didn’t really think about the position it would put them in,” she says of her co-workers.
Willson’s boss, county Communications Director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, says she wishes Willson would have brought the work to the county first so that they could discuss it.
Sullivan-Springhetti says she worries readers will conclude that Willson had to go outside of the agency to expose the truth. “That’s not true,” she says. Sullivan-Springhetti also worries that people within the county will no longer trust her department with sensitive information.
Willson says she did not use county time, special access or county resources in her investigation. Her research and methods were vetted by the National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting.
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at The Poynter Institute, says she doesn’t see a conflict of interest in Willson’s reporting on private time, and says there is a clear public interest in publishing her work. But McBride also wouldn’t blame her boss for being upset.
“I could definitely see the government that she works for saying: ‘You have created a conflict of interest in your ability to do your job,’” she says, suggesting that Willson should have shared her findings with the county first. “I would imagine that she’ll probably lose her job.”
Sullivan-Springhetti, herself a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative journalist at The Oregonian, is not about to fire Willson.
“A public employee can have a private life. I think she worked very hard to separate her reporting from her work with the county,” she says.
Sullivan-Springhetti says there is a lot of anxiety in the organization about what exactly the report will say. But county staff already know there is a problem with racial disparities and they will continue working to fix those.
“We’ve been here before. We’ve had this story before. Finally, in the end, the most important thing is that it starts to change,” she says. “You can’t just be presented with these facts and not move heaven and earth to change them.”