Editor’s note: Portions of this column appeared in a previous Salt Lake Tribune column by the author. Every so often, the FOI Toolbox changes its focus from how journalists can obtain information to how SPJ, both through members and as an organization, can advocate better FOI policy at state and federal levels.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011, is one of those dates that will live in infamy for Utah journalists and citizens. Late in the afternoon, lawmakers unveiled a 1,800-line bill that was intended to gut key provisions of Utah’s records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act (known as GRAMA).
Under certain sections of the IRS tax code, corporations involved in charitable, educational, artistic, religious and social services can qualify for tax-exempt status. In return for such status, the government requires most of these organizations to keep publicly available records for anyone to view.
Want to become a pro at investigating campaign finance? No, you don’t have to attend a special class or request large databases of government data. The story can start at your computer. The data of complex campaign contributions has been simplified by several groups.
Call it “privacy creep.” It’s an ever-growing list of public records that officials close in the name of privacy and identity theft. Because bad ideas spread, journalists and freedom of information advocates should review the following examples to make sure privacy creep isn’t already closing down records in their hometowns or states.
In the United States, we are living through what many have termed a “Mormon moment.” A Google search on “Mormon” yields thousands of hits of recent news stories, many of them surrounding the GOP candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
As part of SPJ’s national newsroom training program, trainers propose document-driven projects that are fairly easy to begin. Here are some story ideas and examples that you could begin using tomorrow: 1. Settlements Check on claims and out-of-court settlements at City Hall.
Will state corrections officials’ attempts to block media access to inmates never end? The latest is Maine Department of Corrections’ officials who proposed draconian media restrictions they said had long been on paper but never implemented. After an outcry from journalists, Maine’s governor said he wanted to review the policies, which included requiring reporters to sign an agreement allowing corrections officials to monitor and control interview content.
When facilitators take SPJ’s national newsroom training on the road, we suggest ways to create a “document-driven” newsroom. Stories based on documents are more thorough and carry much more credibility. Here are some steps reporters can take to make that happen on just about any beat.
Mitch Pearlman, the longtime head of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, once likened government privatization to the Klingon Empire’s “cloaking device,” which hides spacecraft in the sci-fi TV series “Star Trek.” To be sure, the Klingon fleet is growing, journalists and the public should be careful as government cloaks services and budgets in privatized deal-making.
March 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
10 tips to help reporters with stealthy government
Getting past the secrecy of government meetings is an age-old challenge for journalists. While the nation’s founders did much of their work behind closed doors to craft our Constitution, modern government officials seem to, at least, give lip service to the notions of transparency and openness.
The controversy surrounding the jailing of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller could prompt Congress to enact a federal shield law. It has also bolstered efforts to create reporter’s privilege through shield laws or policies in Massachusetts, Washington, Utah, Texas, Connecticut and Vermont.
When a public official gets or sends an e-mail, is it more like a telephone conversation or a letter? Officials and journalists, armed with public records requests, are finding there are no easy answers. Even in the handful of states where laws are clear that e-mail is a public record, the process of getting copies of government e-mails can be tough.
May 2nd, 2005 • Quill Archives
Sunshine Week helps public meet everyday FOI heroes
So little time and so many great stories about Freedom of Information. That’s how I felt as I did a database search of hundreds of news articles and editorials that appeared during Sunshine Week, March 13-19. By any measure, the week was a success in terms of educating the public about open government and making government officials stand up and take notice.
March 8th, 2005 • Quill Archives
Lawmakers should let sun shine on quasi-public groups
A long list of quasi-public organizations that do the public’s business, including state municipal leagues, county associations, university foundations, economic development boards and state worker insurance funds are having a hard time with a new buzzword: transparency. For decades journalists have been calling it “sunshine” or Freedom of Information.
In May, Tom Curley, president and chief executive officer of the Associated Press, warned about forces of secrecy gaining strength from the war on terror and heightened privacy concerns. But in August, he admitted that he hedged on some of his remarks back then.
March 17th, 2004 • Quill Archives
Cyberspace discussions may violate open meetings laws
Using e-mail, instant messaging and voice mail has become second nature to most of us. So has it with many public officials and, without thinking, many may be violating state open meetings and records statutes when they begin conducting business in cyberspace.
Because of a presumed constitutional right of access to court proceedings, journalists usually have found access at courthouses a bit easier to come by than at city hall or the statehouse. That may all be changing. Recent trends toward secrecy show it’s time to do an access checkup on the nation’s courthouses.
When the story of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart’s abduction became national news in June 2002, Connie Coyne knew the dangers. Coyne, the reader advocate for The Salt Lake Tribune, once worked in Florida, the home base for the National Enquirer. Soon after the Smart kidnapping, she said she warned the reporters covering the story – Kevin Cantera and Michael Vigh – about the tabloid’s penchant for coming to town with checkbook in hand to tempt reporters.
Just imagine that a state legislator has introduced a bill that would make most e-mail received by public officials off limits to the public in your state. If you are the local SPJ chapter’s sunshine chair, you need answers – and you need them fast – to start rallying local FOI advocates against the bill.