Deb Gruver in Wichita.
Jorge Barrientos in Bakersfield.
Clifford Anthony from Cleveland.
All freedom of information warriors, along with the 1,006 other people I met this summer during the 45-day “Access Across America” road trip. They are 1,000 points of light, shedding understanding in their communities through public records.
From April 27 through June 10, I drove 14,135 miles in a rented Chevy Impala, giving two-hour training sessions in accessing public records to 28 SPJ chapters, four open-government coalitions and 24 news outlets. I crisscrossed the nation, hitting San Diego, Tacoma, Wash., Miami, Portland, Maine and 30 states in between.
In every part of the country, I saw journalists struggling to do great work with less time. It’s not easy going after public records when stretched thin, but it can be done. I learned a lot in a short time, and I concluded we need to take steps to protect freedom of information, and ultimately democracy.
Some of what I witnessed scared the heck out of me, and other encounters inspired me. Let’s start with the scary.
In Valdosta, Ga., a reporter expressed frustration at the difficulty in getting details about an interstate pile-up, waiting several days to get a public information officer to return a call.
The Courier in Findlay, Ohio, struggled to keep tabs on local crime because officials encrypted emergency dispatch frequencies.
In one town, police refused to provide crime logs, incident reports or jail logs, leaving the newspaper to rely on “scanner bugs” — people who listen to the scanner all day and post what they hear on blogs.
Secrecy in law enforcement is out of control, and we must push back.
In the training sessions, I would ask veteran reporters how they covered cops 20 years ago. They typically said they walked into the police station and looked through the incident reports, kept on a clipboard or in a basket in the lobby, nothing redacted. If you had a question, you would ask the sarge or call the officer.
Then I would turn to a young reporter covering cops today and asked how it’s done: No use going down to the station because nobody will say anything. Call up the public information officer each day and ask if anything happened. Wait for press releases. Maybe get lucky and hear something on the scanner, if it’s not encrypted. Don’t expect to get an actual incident report.
How did we let this happen? Not all communities are like this, and it can vary widely by neighboring towns, but it’s getting worse. There’s a reason dictators like their police secret: They can intimidate political foes and do whatever they like. That’s not what America is about. The criminal justice system must be transparent in order to make sure power is not abused.
To my surprise, I found that the No. 1 problem in accessing public records is not denials. The problem is a lot of people aren’t asking.
The tour focused on smaller newsrooms, typically daily newspapers of 20,000 circulation or less, and some community weekly newspapers, in rural America. Journalists at such outlets often don’t get to go to conferences, and many are hired right out of journalism school, if they went to journalism school at all.
In newsroom after newsroom, I ran across reporters who didn’t know they could look at public records — restaurant inspections, crime reports, officials’ e-mails, or even a basic city budget. Usually veteran staffers teach the newbies the ropes, but a lot of those curmudgeons are gone because of layoffs and buyouts.
Further, government agencies have become more sophisticated in information control over the past 20 years, convincing many inexperienced journalists that all news must come from a PIO.
Based on survey data collected during the sessions, about 18 percent of attendees had never requested a public record from a local or state agency, half had never requested a federal record, and a third said they don’t know how to request public records. About 21 percent said they don’t think anybody cares about public records.
Training can change that. Comments on feedback forms included, “I learned a lot about an unfamiliar topic.” Or, “We don’t get a lot of opportunity for training so this is greatly appreciated.” Or, “I feel inspired to go find things out.”
We need more in-the-newsroom training for journalists at small organizations, which serve thousands of communities and comprise the largest group of professional journalists. Even better, we need a national FOI training center to educate journalists and other citizens in accessing records. A center could coordinate regional on-the-road trainers, develop online modules, create access curriculum for high schools and universities, work with the federal Office of Government Information Services to train government employees, and bolster national public awareness campaigns, such as Sunshine Week.
I saw a lot of empty desks. Reporters looked more haggard than usual. In many newsrooms, the discontent and malaise were smothering. And that was at the organizations where management welcomed me. I was surprised at some of the editors who said they didn’t want free training for their staffers, in their own newsrooms.
At the beginning of the tour, it was clear I would need to adjust the content to include more tips on how to gather public records while taking on two extra beats, updating the website three times a day and capturing video during interviews. We changed the session title to: “How to do FOI when you are SOL.”
A quarter of the attendees surveyed said they didn’t have time to request public records. Many said they think their news organizations are less willing to sue over illegal denials than a few years ago.
“The people and agencies we cover know about our downsizing, over-worked staff (doing the job of two or more people), and our dwindling audience,” one person wrote. “We need to be aware of how our collective strength is perceived.”
And how. It’s more important than ever for journalists to stand united and hold the line against secrecy. In a world of WikiLeaks, infotainment and blogs posing as news, the public needs journalists to gather information, critically evaluate it and communicate it effectively.
Journalism is not dead. Journalism matters. Which leads me to the parts of the tour that inspired me.
FOI Warriors at Arms
Despite difficult economic times, many journalists are doing incredible work, and I ran across dedicated citizens and non-profits joining the cause.
People like Deb Gruver, who writes a weekly column for The Wichita Eagle called “You Oughta Know.” Since 2006, Gruver has opened readers’ worlds to more than 200 records that can be useful in their lives.
Jorge Barrientos, a reporter for The (Bakersfield) Californian, used some of the tips from the sessions to get a copy of a claim filed against a college. “They said the claim wasn’t an open record,” Barrientos wrote to me. “I sent an open records request — the angry one I knew would get quick results. A week later, I had the claim in my hand.”
Clifford Anthony, president of the Cleveland SPJ Pro chapter, educated Ohio legislators this year about the dangers of limiting public access to 911 tapes. He got SPJ to write a letter. He encouraged the major newspapers to write editorials. Legislators backed off.
I was impressed by the 27,000-circulation St. Cloud (Minn.) Times, which employs a full-time “watchdog reporter” and reads like a metro. Even non-profits have started digging through records to expose government waste, such as the “Show Me Institute” in Missouri.
In fact, there were so many incredibly talented and knowledgeable people in the sessions that I had a difficult time writing down all the tips they had for me. I posted 57 of them on the Access Across America blog.
Since the tour, I’ve heard from dozens of journalists who have applied the tips. The News Virginian submitted 40 public records requests, bolstering a dozen stories. One attendee requested work e-mails from 22 local public officials. Others started getting restaurant inspections and budget information.
Is keeping government transparent and accountable difficult? Yes. But I was fortunate to see journalists throughout the country fighting for open meetings and records, despite being stretched thin. We can push back against encroaching secrecy. We can maintain our watchdog role and defend democracy.
We can hold the line.
David Cuillier, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, an SPJ newsroom trainer and an assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Journalism. He is co-author with Charles Davis of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Travel expenses for the Access Across America tour were covered by an $8,250 grant from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, a $4,000 grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the University of Arizona School of Journalism.