When Illinois journalist Susan Sarkauskas was denied access to a meeting of the Waubonsee Community College Board of Trustees last year, she could have filed a lawsuit alleging the board had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. Instead, Sarkauskas simply wrote to the Illinois attorney general.
For better or worse, Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks and the Sony hacking scandal have made headlines around the world by taking information in violation of the law and sharing it with the press. Importantly, journalists who reported on the information disclosed in those leaks have been shielded from extraordinary legal risk — and that is probably no accident.
Regardless of whether you live in or near a border town, immigration issues are moving to the forefront of people’s minds. And for good reason: Immigrants are coming to the United States at higher rates today than they were during the 1900s.
State open government laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act won’t help journalists seeking information directly from Native American tribal governments. As sovereign nations, the 566 federally recognized tribes operate apart from those statutes. Only because Maine’s unique statutory framework treats tribes as municipal governments does that state’s open records law apply when tribes communicate in their municipal capacities with other governments.
A county council in Maryland made an announcement in October that grabbed my attention: It was launching a new digital tool to track and share the results of state public information requests. My first reaction: Pretty cool; it’s about time; more organizations should do this.
Accessing information is challenging enough, but keeping the information safe, as well as ourselves, is becoming increasingly difficult. Most journalists don’t work in war zones, and most won’t be gunned down in their offices by terrorists, as we witnessed in the horrific massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris.
As more Title IX cases sprout up across the country, bringing to life a series of sexual discrimination issues on college campuses, journalists are reminded how crucial it is to have an arsenal of context waiting for when that big story drops.
When a public agency denies you a public record, don’t get mad; get busy. And get help. Organizations like SPJ can help you get information the public needs to adequately self-govern: SUNSHINE NETWORK SPJ’s Sunshine Network provides resources and experts for every state.
According to at least one study, Facebook is dying. Princeton researchers John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler claim that Facebook will lose 80 percent of its users in the next three years. So what? At the least, it’s an indication that the tools we use to communicate within our society are constantly evolving and, in this digital age, at a dizzying rate.
At this writing, state court systems in 24 states have Twitter accounts, 11 are on YouTube, and eight are on Facebook, according to the National Center for State Courts. But while courts may be jumping on the social media bandwagon to get information out to the public, they’re not uniformly keen on allowing the use of social media inside courtrooms.
The Florida legislature passed a bill last year that requires training for constitutional officers. That would include people like the governor, sheriffs, county commissioners and school superintendents. It’s a four-hour training requirement and has to address the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees and the state Sunshine Laws.
Much has been written about the proposed federal shield law, the Free Flow of Information Act, by our president Dave Cuillier, by Lynn Walsh in the last issue of Quill, and by others. It’s not a perfect bill. An amendment by Sen.
Are you a journalist? Are you regularly “gathering,” “collecting” or “preparing” information about “matters of public interest”? You may think the answers to these questions are easy or should automatically be yes. But what if you had to prove that you were a “journalist” to be protected by the proposed federal shield law?
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.
A female student complained to Oklahoma State University police in January that her ex-boyfriend had secretly videotaped them having sex in an on-campus apartment that the student newspaper identified as a football player’s residence. OSU officials redacted the ex-boyfriend’s name and other identifying information from the incident report released to the news media.
Check out five federal databases that you can download for free, pull into Microsoft Excel, and analyze to identify trends and problems in your community. Start with these easily obtainable databases and then use your FOI skills to request more public data specific to your beat.
Always prepared for newsgathering emergencies, I periodically restock my reporter’s toolbox with the latest gadgets. Certain over-used phrases require new tools to tweak and fix. “BOND ISSUE” Local governments use this term so no one notices they run their cities the way Congress runs the federal government, namely by spending more money than they take in.
Freedom of information is more than access to government records, although that’s a good start. FOI is also about access to the makers of those records, the elected officials and the countless civil servants it takes to run this country. The most important tool in your FOI toolbox — one heavily used in the early days of this nation but maybe gone rusty these days — is a healthy sense of skepticism.
Is there a (lucky) journalist covering government who hasn’t had to deal with a public information officer, or PIO? Unlikely. And don’t fool yourself — sometimes they may not have the title, but they still do the job. In the past, you’d call up the specific person in government you needed to get information from, and they’d tell you what you needed.
America’s prisons are packed with important stories — stories of crime and punishment and other policy decisions that are rich with human drama and real-world consequences. And what happens behind prison walls affects us all. Not only will the vast majority of the 2 million people currently behind bars eventually re-enter their communities, but with an annual budget of more than $74 billion, America’s state and federal prisons require vast economic and human resources to sustain.
Reporters who cover Congress and federal executive branch agencies aren’t getting the help they need from public affairs officers. Indeed, they are reporting overwhelming frustration trying to interview federal employees or get basic information for the public because of interference from PAOs.
It’s the bane of every education reporter’s life, and a nuisance to anyone trying to pry information from a school board, college or university: the 1974 Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA is a federal privacy law that many school officials have taken to mean that any piece of paper or film with a student’s name on it is off limits to the public.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to become a better journalist, then what better way than to take advantage of free training in accessing public records? Here are five ways to hone your FOI skills this year on the cheap: 1.
Quick: What’s freedom of information? Going online to get free resources for your stories? Wikipedia? WikiLeaks? Actually, it’s none of the above. It’s the free flow of and access to information, particularly generated by government, in a free society. So why should it matter to you?
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.
When natural disaster affects your community, be prepared to cover it — and save lives — with the help of public records. Before catastrophe strikes Some of the best reporting exposes vulnerabilities before disaster hits. •Look at single-family-home building permits issued by your county government for areas prone to flooding or wildfires.
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).
After struggling to get public data out of government agencies, why let it sit on a hard drive? Share it with the world! Now anyone can post data on websites or blogs for people to view as sortable tables, charts and maps.
Whether you are conducting a statewide audit of a government agency or requesting a single public record, hope for cooperation and transparency but anticipate litigation from day one. Doing so will put you in the mindset to develop the kind of rock-solid paper trail that ultimately could lead to agency compliance or, if necessary, a successful public record lawsuit.
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.
Foiled by federal FOIA? Get help from the Office of Government Information Services. This federal ombudsman office, housed in the National Archives and Records Administration just outside Washington, D.C., in College Park, Md., is a year old as of September. Seven staff attorneys mediate disputes when requesters feel agencies are not following the U.S.
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.