Story starters

Protesting guns – and lack of guns – on a Virginia college campus. BBC news crew interviews pro-gun advocate while anti-gun advocates, both of whom were victims of the Virginia Tech shootings, hold signs in the background.

Slow news day? Need an idea? By getting to know some of the government spending, safety and census information about the region you serve as a journalist, you can raise questions that lead you to significant issues. Suppose you wonder whether your city or county is spending too much or too little on fire and rescue services. You can check spending in your county against per capita spending in other counties and the state average by downloading the most recent comparative data from the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts. Of course, there may be a good reason why spending is higher in one place than the next, so this is just a good starting point as you ask questions of local government officials.

  1. Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts — Especially valuable are the comparative local government  reports  in Excel format which allow per-capita comparisons in all kinds of spending categories.
  2.  Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC)  — Check reports on local agencies.  JLARC audits state government units and reports to the state legislature.  (Unlike the APA, which reports to the governor). This is similar to federal-level legislative agencies like the Congressional Budget Office reports or Government Accountability Office, both of which report to Congress.
  3.  Virginia Courts — Although this database is astonishingly difficult and cumbersome to use, and not at all timely or generally useful,  you can at least get a small window into the court system.  It does not substitute for on-site reporting, but it can be helpful, for instance, in checking on the outcome of criminal cases and civil lawsuits against local government or universities.
  4. Open Secrets — Top campaign contributions for Congress.
  5. EPA enforcement and compliance history online
  6. National environmental public health tracking system — Centers for Disease Control.
  7. Statistical abstracts – US Census
  8. Dept. of Transportation safety statistics
  9. Virginia Public Access Project — Track lobbyist expenses and state office campaign contributions.

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