Every reporter knows it’s both who you know and what you know that makes a good story. It’s no different in the freedom of information world when you’re trying to get access to public records, change legislation or just get into a meeting you’re pretty sure you should have access to.
WHAT YOU KNOW
Know the law. Most of you will be dealing with state records laws. Make sure you know yours. They’re usually available online but can change every year. Download a copy, yearly if you have a part-time legislature, much more often if yours is full time.
Now read it — yes, all 57 or whatever pages of it. Once you’re familiar with it, it will be easy to skim in the future to see what if anything, has changed.
Keep a copy handy and take it out in the field with you. You’d be surprised how often a simple, “Well actually, it says here in the code, section XXX …,” can turn a “No, you can’t see it” into a “Here you go.”
Many SPJ chapters print a little card with the open meetings law, or its highlights, for their state. If yours does, take it to all government meetings with you. Quote it freely if you think they’re closing a meeting illegally.
Understand that most FOI laws (open records/open government) have no teeth, i.e. no real penalty for breaking the law. You can appeal to your state records committee or ombudsman, but sometimes the agency ignores their recommendations anyway. Then you’re going to have to go to court. It’s costly, it takes a long time, and most of the time your editor isn’t going to have the budget to support it. In that case, the SPJ Legal Defense Fund may be able to help.
Know instead that what you need to do is have them tried in the court of public opinion. When you’re denied public records or access to a public meeting, write about it, post about it on Facebook, tweet and blog about it.
With the advent of the Internet, it truly has become a small world, and their constituents may just be the people who will put the pressure on them to follow the law.
Educate yourself. It may seem noble and empowering to try storming city hall, but who, specifically, are you calling out, and what specific power does the law give you?
Don’t be like the university students who a few years ago were outraged by a denied request and decided to have it out with city hall. Hundreds of them gathered and marched to the local city building, only to be told their beef was with the county commission. Many of them then regrouped at the county commission building only to discover that the day they marched, a Friday, the building was closed.
Read up on your subject. Plenty of great books are out there to guide you, including “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records” by Charles Davis and our incoming president Dave Cuillier.
WHO YOU KNOW
Work colleagues. Is there a “seasoned” reporter in your newsroom? Odds are he/she has some great ideas for working around the problem. And don’t forget your editorial board/editorial writers. They can provide some of the pressure you need.
Government officials. Most elected officials in the U.S. portray themselves as supporters of open government. While few actually are when it comes to their own situation, use that. Contact a legislator/city council member who is not wedded to the issue you’re trying to get information on. Show him/her the law and ask for help gaining access. Sometimes it works.
Professional organizations. Take SPJ to begin. We have a great FOI section on the website (SPJ.org/foi. asp), and members of the FOI Committee are happy to help. (My number is 801-554-7513).
Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE.org) has a lot of resources, and many of its members are FOI warriors.
The Student Press Law Center (SPLC.org) has a great records request letter template and lots of help for students.
The National Freedom Of Information Coalition (NFOIC. org) has an organization in most states. These people have a deep knowledge of your state laws.
Other organizations such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP.org) and Openthegovernment.org also have great resources.
We all know knowledge is power. In the FOI world, having knowledge and knowing how to use it make all the difference.
Linda Petersen is managing editor of The Valley Journals, a group of community papers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah. She is president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, the Utah Headliners chapter FOI officer, and national FOI Committee Chairwoman. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.