By Sandy K. Johnson

Producing accountability journalism can be daunting when your day is filled with spot news deadlines. One possible shortcut: state and local audit reports.

Journalists Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene (bio, Twitter) have done consulting on state and local government performance for 25 years. They call themselves “devoted readers” of state and local audits, with a focus on performance audits (as opposed to financial).

“In general, we have a lot of faith in auditors. Audits are usually written with independent perspective and delve into what’s going on and how government really works,” Barrett said.

Two caveats: Every place is nonpartisan – unless it’s not. And if an auditor is elected, he or she could be too partisan. And some organizations with really excellent data color their analysis with a political slant. “You can use their data, just don’t use their conclusions,” Greene said.

They also advised National Press Foundation fellows to look for annual summaries by state and local auditors that look at whether recommendations were accepted or implemented. Greene suggested reporters go back three or four years later to see what, if anything, happened.

Audits always include methodologies. Greene said the first thing to do is read the methodology and see how the auditors came to their conclusion.

They also pointed to associations whose members are state officials – budget officers and auditors, for example. These associations have conferences, and they often post conference sessions online that reporters can access. “They’re always a whole lot more candid about the problems they’re having than when they talk to a reporter,” Barrett said.

They suggested reporters shy away those ubiquitous state rankings – best places to live, best places to retire, best whatever – because the methodology is suspect and the data often old.