Public records and the information and data that come from them can be invaluable to your stories and can take your reporting to the next level. This is true for all journalists, but particularly important for young and early-career reporters trying to make their work stand out.
Using public records you can quickly add context to a story and dig deeper in breaking news situations. You are able to give the community more than just the who, what, where, when and how of a situation.
By submitting public record and FOIA requests, you are able to hold government officials and agencies accountable. But, most important, you can report and cover the stories and issues others are not, because you are looking deeper and taking the time to uncover what may not already be out in plain sight.
Public information laws and the federal FOIA can be intimidating, and keeping up with requests and fighting for information is not always easy. But, in my opinion, it is always worth it.
While the laws governing public information and what is available differ from state to state, don’t be intimidated or let the hoops you sometimes have to jump through discourage you.
Think about following up on a specific story you did. Were there any questions left unanswered?
For me this is the perfect place to start. What did you still want to know? Why were you not able to get the answers to those questions? Or maybe you think there could be a pattern.
In situations like this, submitting a public information request can be really helpful. For example, request a government worker’s employment file or disciplinary record. Or consider a request for how many times a police agency has responded to a specific type of call. Ask for when, where and who was involved.
Maybe you want to know more about a specific department: How much are they spending on travel, or how much are people in the department making each year?
Think about using documents for feature stories. Freedom of information requests do not always have to lead to investigative or hard-news stories.
What about a story on the people with the most speeding tickets in your town? Or how often lawmakers have been pulled over for speeding? That can be done with a relatively simple public records request.
Government expense reports can also lead to great stories about how people and agencies are spending m where they are spending money and who is spending it. Consider trying a story about where city council members are eating and what kind of food they are ordering. Is it a filet mignon and high-end bottle of wine that’s expensed to taxpayers?
Some other records to consider for features: business registrations, U.S. patents, county consumer complaints and code enforcement records.
Of course, you need to be aware of common exemptions. While journalists, certain organizations and the public continue to push for transparency, some information generally remains secret and out of the public domain.
If you are requesting public information, it’s a good idea to know what some of these common exemptions include. When dealing with crimes or crime reports, victims and sometimes a suspect’s personal identification information may be withheld. This could apply to their name, address, telephone number, Social Security number, etc.
Some information involving ongoing investigations can be withheld from the public. Be sure to follow-up on these requests closely and know the law through and through, because you should be able to get some information, even if it’s very basic. And by keeping up with these requests involving ongoing investigations, you can be sure to get the information when the investigation is over, and not weeks or months after.
Once you know what is out there and become comfortable with the laws and records in your state and community, submitting requests becomes second nature. It’s a good practice to dedicate an hour (or more) on a specific day every week to check up on requests and make new ones. Doing so will keep you in the routine of making records requests a regular part of your journalistic duties.
Lynn Walsh, SPJ’s national secretary-treasurer, is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has been working in investigative journalism for six years in Ohio, Texas and Florida. Currently she is a national digital producer for the 30+ Scripps news organizations across the country. On Twitter: @lwalsh