Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Always ask "Why"

Here is a story that's a good example of failing to ask many of the right questions (if they were asked, it doesn't show).

The headline holds great promise:

How SC keeps mental-health data from gun database 

South Carolina is not passing critical information about residents with mental illness along to the federal government, leaving the door open for potentially violent people to buy firearms, critics say.

This lack of a sharing, paired with a flawed federal system, could one day yield deadly results, according to a growing chorus of state leaders, lawmakers and parents.

Sounds like a pretty good look at how and why South Carolina isn't sharing this information, right?

Except nowhere in that story can I find the how or the why.

The how, I guess, is fairly simple - it just isn't doing it. But why isn't it doing it? Nowhere does reporter Gina Smith, whose work I respect, actually tell us. She dwells on the case of a woman with mental health problems who got a gun and tried to fire it outside a school. She tells us the state's attorney general, Alan Wilson, is upset and he and some lawmakers are preparing legislation that would require the state to share mental health information with the federal database.

She tells us:
South Carolina rarely provides mental health records to an FBI database for gun background checks.

That means the FBI cannot enter that information into a database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System or NICS. Gun-store owners around the country rely on the database to alert them when a potential buyer is ineligible to purchase a gun.

It's up to state governments to share their data including mental-health records, proof of citizenship, criminal and drug-abuse histories and more.

South Carolina shared only 17 mental-health records from the time the database came into existence in 1998 to October 2011, according to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of mayors from across the nation working to help law enforcement target illegal guns. Eighteen other states provided even fewer records, according to the report.

Colin Miller, a law professor at the University of South Carolina's law school, said the NICS system does not provide adequate information that gun stores and others who sell firearms need.

"There is a lot of information that should be there that isn't. There is a lot of missing data," Miller said. "There are a lot of reasons why it's not there. Bureaucracy, red tape. And there's not anything that incentivizes states to provide that information to NICS.

"And there are no enforcement mechanisms to punish them for not providing it."

Officials in some states say the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prevents them from turning over such records to the FBI. They also say there is no money to create a system to collect the records from health agencies and courts, and no laws requiring it.

Wilson would not speculate on why South Carolina does not do it.
And that's it. One dismissive line - the attorney general would not speculate. So why not dig for the answer to some basic questions:
  • Whose responsibility is it to turn them over?
  • Why isn't that person or agency not doing it?
  • Who turned over the 17 and why hasn't that person or agency turned over more?
  • Are there privacy (HIPAA) concerns or conflicts specifically in South Carolina?
  • Did I miss it, or why is no one from the state Mental Health Department quizzed at length on all this?
All in all, the story essentially becomes an extended news release for Wilson. It talks past a lot of these issues by referring to other states or national organizations - or to Miller, whose insights are valuable but who does not address South Carolina's failing specifically.

But it never drills down into South Carolina to see who is or is not responsible (if no one is responsible, that's a good story in itself) and if someone or some agency is responsible, why that responsibility isn't being carried out.

As quoted by Brant Houston in "The Investigative Reporter's Handbook":
Newspaper editor Tom Honig wrote in The IRE Journal that "most good investigations come down to one of two things -- either a process did not work or people did not follow the guidelines."
Smith's story provides neither answer and essentially becomes a big shrug combined with a bit of hand-wringing. But government without responsibility is chaos, and it's our jobs to penetrate the surface and tell people whether there is malfeasance, nonfeasance or just cluelessness.

We can and should do better.

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At 2/25/13, 2:20 AM, Anonymous Sarah Lim said...

I agree with your post. I have noticed that many news articles do not always state why things happen. I think this is because sometimes the why can lead to controversial reasons just like in this case. It is probably not difficult to share mental health records. But I think South Carolina is not releasing critical information about residents with mental illness because of privacy reasons. Mental disorders are also complicated. Some mental disorders may be considered a mental disorder to some but not to others. I agree that it would be safer if South Carolina and other states share mental health records but then there would be many disagreements. I also agree that it is important to ask why. There seems to be so many unanswered questions in our news provided by journalists.


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