So far: Ten states, 4,884 miles, 24 sessions, 396 people (see schedule)
Lansing, Mich. – Make sure to tap into the knowledge of private investigators, particularly those who were once journalists – they combine information-hunting skills with ethics.
Tonight (Wednesday) at a gathering for the Mid-Michigan Pro Chapter in Lansing, an enthusiastic crowd offered a bunch of tips in access that I think are outstanding. Here are a few from former journalist and current private investigator Patrick Clawson:
Kevin Polzin, business editor of the Lansing State Journal, left, Jeremy Steele, SPJ Region 4 Director, and Diana Buchanan, a former Journal staffer, at the Mid-Michigan Pro Chapter meeting Wednesday night.
Tip No. 17: Specify in your request the way the records will help people understand how government operates. Now, in most public records law the reason why you want the records is irrelevant – you shouldn’t have to explain yourself. Yet, at the same time the courts are increasingly saying that public records laws apply only to records that illuminate what the government is up to. There’s a disconnect there. If you specify how the records illustrate how well government is working then that prevents one potential reason for denial. For example, let’s use the example of pet licenses. Snoopy reason: I want to get the database to have home addresses to find people on deadline. Government operations reason: I want to analyze the percentage of licensed pets by zip code to see if the agency is adequately serving all demographic groups in the city.
Tip No. 18: If you are denied a record and write about the denial focus on the individual person who denied you. Don’t say the agency denied you, because officials can then hide behind the agency title – nobody has to take responsibility. Single out the person – put a human face to the denial-giver. Furthermore, it gives an easy way out for the person in charge to provide the records by blaming the person who denied the records (the agency head might throw the employee under the bus to save face).
Tip No. 19: Get your private investigator license (if your state licenses PIs) and learn all the sources of information they get, including driver’s license data. I did this once when I was a reporter but didn’t feel like I could use the records as a PI for reporting purposes. But Patrick Clawson said it’s worked for him, and that he even defended the practice in court. So it’s worth checking out. I did learn quite a bit when I went through the training and certification process.
Thanks to Tony Tagliavia, chapter president, and Jeremy Steele, Region 4 Director, for organizing the event. It was a blast. Some great representation from local papers, The Associated Press, and university.
Thursday: I’ll visit with the Owosso Argus Press then the Detroit pro chapter. Michigan is nice and green!