Strengthen your public records skills through an easy document-gathering workout regimen: 1. FOI FIRST ON FRIDAYS Pick one hour a week, block out everything for that hour, and submit one records request. If you do this each week, you’ll have 52 requests a year.
Accessing public records should be easy: ask and then get. Unfortunately, many officials illegally deny valid records requests and you don’t have the time or money to sue. I asked William Ury, co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and co-author of “Getting to Yes,” if we can apply his principles to the process of records requests and he said, well, “yes.”
What good is access to government records if it costs as much as a bank buyout to get copies? Too often public agencies charge more than they should for copies of records, sometimes as much as $1 or more per page.
Government records can yield some awesome features for your community and news-you-can-use data for your Web site that people will love. Here are 11 of my favorites: [b]1. INVENTORS Look at U.S. patent records to find wacky inventions in your area.
When submitting a public records request letter, either through your state public records law or the federal Freedom of Information Act, it pays to think tone. How you write your letter can affect whether a public official responds, regardless of the law.
Just because you’re carrying a gun doesn’t mean you have to use it. Sometimes it should stay holstered. Same with some government documents and data. A record that is legally public doesn’t have to be posted for the public. That’s difficult for me to say, because I believe strongly in open government.
When looking for great documents to support your stories, be sure to reap the benefits of freedom of information advocates who have already acquired government records and posted them online for everyone to view. These document vaults are rich with information and story ideas: wrongdoing by local companies; complaints against television shows; investigations into prominent newsmakers.
Finally, some improvements to the federal Freedom of Information Act. On Dec. 31, President Bush signed into law the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which was the biggest overhaul of FOIA since 1996. While on paper the amendments improve access to federal records, the law’s effectiveness is so far unknown, according to SPJ attorney Laurie Babinski.
One of the most effective ways of overcoming a public records denial is to tell people about it. Yet a lot of journalists hesitate to write stories when government hides information from the public. Some say it’s “insider baseball,” a conflict of interest to write about disputes between journalists and government.
Chapters and newsrooms are doing great work in freedom of information, so the FOI Committee decided to share some of its programs with everyone. At the SPJ Web site, you’ll find dozens of ideas for FOI programs suitable for professional chapters, campus chapters or newsrooms.
One illegal public record denial, shame on them. Two illegal denials, shame on me. When a public agency denies a public records request, and suing isn’t an option, don’t give up and enable future denials. Put a stop to it with peer pressure.
Journalists don’t have to wait until a catastrophe to cover failing infrastructure in their communities. Following the Minneapolis bridge collapse, media outlets throughout the country scrambled to find documents pinpointing crumbling bridges in their own communities. Some government agencies responded by making the records secret, saying that news reporting highlights vulnerable targets for terrorists and that journalists wouldn’t be able to interpret the records.
When officials deny your public records requests, turn “no” into “know,” as in “right to know.” Below are 10 common reasons agencies rebuff freedom of information requests and ways to prevail that FOI Committee member Charles Davis and I developed for the SPJ newsroom training program.
When trying to do our best, it’s sometimes helpful to learn from the best. Many of the Sigma Delta Chi award-winning stories highlighted in this issue of Quill relied on public records. By using a document-state-of-mind scanning method, we can identify some of the records obtained by the reporters and apply that to our own reporting.
When Lusk Herald reporter Brandie Bartelt wanted to find out why the police chief resigned in January, she knew she could ask Mayor Pete Pier. The official city reason was that the Lusk, Wyo., chief was “retiring.” In an off-the-record interview, however, Pier confirmed Bartelt’s suspicions that the chief wasn’t doing the job and was asked to resign.
No matter what beat you cover or media organization you work for, chances are you will need to find information about a person. Below are dozens of public records any journalist or citizen can tap into to get background information. Check with your state SPJ Sunshine chairman (www.spj.org/sunshine-chairs.asp)