Access tips in one file (all 57)
Below are all the tips combined that I have been posting in the blog entries daily. Each tip has a link to its original blog post.
1. Play up local connections to get records
If you work at a small paper, play up the fact you are local, that everyone reads your paper, and that outsiders should not get favoritism.
2. Fifteen responses to exorbitant copy fees
Here’s what I provide in the handouts that might help you get what you need for little or no money:
- Don’t ask for copies. Look at the documents for free. In most states an agency can’t charge for search fees, only for copies (check your state law).
- Narrow the request to just the few pages that you really need.
- Ask for a fee waiver as a researcher using the information for the public good (federal FOIA provides waivers for journalists, researchers, etc.).
- Take photos or use a portable scanner (about $100).
- Ask for electronic files on CD or e-mailed for free.
- Ask the agency for an itemized list of expenses to justify the costs. Here is what I consider reasonable: Add paper (.7 cents per page based on a box of paper from Office Depot), machine depreciation (.2 cents per page based on a Xerox WorkCentre 5225 that costs $4,299 and produces 75,000 copies a month), and toner (.6 cents per page), and you get 1.5 cents per page. Call it an even 2 cents per page and the agency is still making a 25 percent profit margin.
- Question high staff search fees, if in a state where that is charged – $100 per hour is equivalent to paying someone $208,000 a year to make copies.
- Request to see a copy of the contract the agency has with a copy company. My employer pays a company less than a penny (.9 cents) per page to provide the machine, service it and refill the toner. It’s all in a contract, which is public.
- Survey local agencies to compare typical costs and expose the unreasonable.
- Survey citizens to find out what they consider reasonable. Most people will say 10 or 15 cents per page copy. If a profit-oriented store can charge that, then surely a non-profit public agency can charge less.
- If the unreasonable charge is for computer programming, call the company that makes the software and ask them if copying data should be time consuming. They often say it takes a few minutes.
- Publicize the unreasonable copy fees. Find out if an agency provides free copies to lawyers or commercial requesters but overcharges citizens. Contact elected officials. Blog about it.
- Team with other requesters to share the bill. Request the request logs to see who else requests records frequently from the agency.
- Ask an ombudsman or state attorney general to talk sense into the agency.
- Sue or lobby for laws specifying reasonable fees.
3. Examine detailed budgets closely
Look through your school district’s expenditures of student body fees to see how the money is being spent. Is it spent directly on students or other stuff to cover school deficits? The Miami Herald was honored for exposing waste and corruption in city and county governments through examination of the budget.
4. Argue that in many cases public needs override privacy interests
Reporter Joe Johnson asked about what to do when agencies hide everything under “personnel” or “privacy.” This is a huge problem today, even when public employees are disciplined for really bad stuff. In most states, if the public interest outweighs the employee’s privacy then you have a good shot at getting it. Argue the public interest. Also, use a basic sniff test: If the average person would be appalled at the secrecy, then you’ll have a good opportunity to get the records. For example, when The Seattle Times wanted records of when coaches were disciplined for inappropriate relations (including sex) with their high school athletes, the teachers union argued that disclosure of the information would invade the coaches’ privacy. That is simply laughable. Which is what the public did, as well as the courts. The Times did a great piece about coaches who prey. It’s just common sense.
5. If they don’t keep records then focus on that as news
Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center suggested that when you ask for a record and the agency says they don’t keep records about that, then focus on the fact they don’t keep records. I call this the “Um, well, that’s interesting…” technique. Let’s say you ask a university for the motor pool records – who all has checked out vehicles, for how long, where they go, why, etc. The university tells you, “sorry, we don’t have such records – we don’t track that.” Then you say, “Ummm, well, now THAT’S interesting. Really? You don’t keep track of your fleet of cars? So anyone can be doing anything with your taxpayer-funded vehicles and you would never know? Hmmm, I see a story here.” Then do a story about that. Now, usually as you are doing your interviews for this story (“Excuse me, Madam Legislator, did you know the university doesn’t track its vehicles?”), the agency figures out that it doesn’t want to look like it’s a poor steward of tax dollars so then they all of a sudden discover they do have the records after all.
6. Compare access and police stories from 20 years ago to today
Folks, it’s time to push back. We can’t allow the police to operate in secret. Roll back to the way it was. For the public’s sake. Do the then-and-now story. Look back 25 years in your paper and pull out a week’s worth of police blotters and stories. Compare the timeliness and details to a week’s worth of blotters and stories today. Show how news is less timely and contains fewer details today than it did 25 years ago. And this is the information age! Talk to citizens affected. Show why it matters.
7. Be open with agencies when possible (and never lie!)
This got me thinking about a previous session where a citizen journalist asked whether it would be OK to submit a public records request under a fake name so the agency doesn’t figure out who the requester is. I don’t think that would be a good idea. It just seems a little ironic to demand openness and transparency, and then hide one’s identity through lying. Also, we are in the truth business, so lying is incompatible with what we do. The agency might find out anyway. Now, in general, public record laws don’t require you to identify yourself or why you want the record (some exceptions). But from a practical perspective, it speeds things along if you leave a name and contact information so they can let you know when the records are ready. If it’s really important to mask the identity of a requester, then perhaps a proxy might be appropriate. Businesses do this a lot with FOIA requests so they don’t tip off the competition on what records they are requesting (I’m told by former SPJ President Christine Tatum that you can make money as a records request proxy for companies). If I were a journalist, however, I still probably wouldn’t do that. I think it’s better to be up front with agencies. Honesty is the best policy.
8. Encourage government to post records online
Encourage your local governments to post documents and data online for citizens to search and view themselves. Find good examples of agencies doing this in your state and provide the URLs to your government. Highlight the benefits: saves time of employees in retrieving documents, sends the message that the agency is on the ball, and builds trust with the community. Make sure the interface is user-friendly and easily searchable. Here’s one caveat: Sometimes when you ask for records the clerks will say it’s all online, but maybe the records aren’t all online. They might post summary data but not the actual reports or pdfs. (e.g., restaurant inspection data might be posted online with ratings, but the inspector’s handwritten reports with all the details might be in the files at the office).
9. Carry a flash drive with you
Today at a session at the Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle, the Web guru brought up a great reminder: Always carry a flash drive to copy files while at government offices. You never know when you are talking to an official and they have a record in their computer that they can provide to you immediately. If you deal with large amounts of data, it’s worth investing in a portable hard drive with tons of gigabytes.
10. Empower clerks to give you records
Empower clerks to use their power. A lot of clerks aren’t paid that much, but are likely to get a lot of satisfaction out of serving the public and having a little bit of power. He said he assesses a person’s sense of power and the importance they place on that power. So if a clerk feels a sense of power over the records (and who gets them and who doesn’t), use that to your advantage. Acknowledge their power, don’t discount it Discounting: “It doesn’t matter what YOU say, the LAW says you have to give me the record.” Acknowledging: “I understand you have to make decisions on how these documents are disseminated, and that you take that responsibility seriously. I respect that. I appreciate the authority you have in providing these records to me and the rest of the public.”
11. Find out about access in other countries
Since I don’t know much about India, when I get queries about how freedom of information laws work in other countries (the lingo in the international community is “Access to Information (ATI)” laws, or often Right to Information (RTI) laws), I refer people first to www.freedominfo.org, which provides detailed information about access to information in most countries. You’ll find a report by access scholar Alasdair Roberts, who analyzed how well India’s FOIA law has been working, now in its fourth year (based on a paper he published in January in Public Administration Review). Also, FOIAnet is a great resource for international FOI issues. Right2Info.org also provides a breakdown of countries’ access laws.
12. Acquire signed openness pledges from candidates
Get public officials to sign pledges of openness when they run for office, then when they break the public records law pull the pledge out and remind them of their promise. At the very least, ask every incoming elected official and high-ranking officer what their views are on access, quote them and get it in the record. Then if they favor illegal secrecy run those initial quotes in your story. And if it’s an official who ran on a platform of openness, just remind that person every now and then.
13. Get inspired by videos
Get inspired by watching videos that rev your ideals. It doesn’t even have to be a journalism movie. For me, The Untouchables is inspirational – people fighting for what’s right, against all odds. Here are some ideas for FOI-inspiring video nights (comment with your favorites!):
* All the President’s Men (documents and sources can bring down a president)
* Good Night and Good Luck (journalists like Edward R. Murrow stand up to the abuse of power)
* Veronica Guerin (journalists are willing to give their lives for uncovering societal ills)
* Snow Falling on Cedars (journalists at community papers can stand up for what’s right, and use records in ways to further justice)
* The Fog of War (great look into how government spins, featuring Robert McNamara)
* McLibel (shows how citizens can stand up to big corporations)
* The Running Man (cheesy Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick that shows what kind of society we might have if we don’t hold the line – great short documentary on civil liberties on the DVD)
14. FOI first on Fridays
Reserve an hour during the week when you aren’t too busy – maybe a Friday morning before others come in. Request one record, or type of record, from an agency each week and use that time to check in on pending requests. Track the requests. If you do that you’ll have at least 52 records requests issued in a year, and if you get stories from just half of them then you’ll have ratcheted up your reporting a whole level. Also, it gets the agency accustomed to you asking for records, which will make the process easier down the road. Put a sticky note on your monitor to remind yourself: “FOI First on Fridays.”
15. Play up the perception of hiding
Explain to officials that they are better off being up front about problems and handing over records rather than fighting to keep them secret to hide embarrassing facts. The cover-up is always worse than the crime. Also, when officials hide records reporters work harder to get them, and editors perceive the story more important (Page One play, here we come). So if you can explain that to officials, and remind them that it’s better to “get in front of a story” and provide information quickly and openly, then the pain will be over faster.
16. Appoint newsroom FOI cheerleader
Appoint someone in your newsroom to be the “watchdog reporter” or “database cheerleader.” I think it’s even better to appoint an assistant city editor position for that duty because the person would have a little clout over the reporters. Then have that person work with each reporter in producing a stellar document-or-data-based project each year. If you have 12 reporters then that would be one great Sunday project each month. Shoot for two per reporter per year the following year (two a month published). Sometimes we need a cheerleader in the newsroom to keep people fired up, because the daily grind can wipe people out!
17. Focus on how records illuminate what government does
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.
18. Focus on actual name of person who denied record
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).
19. Learn from PIs
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.
20. Request the request logs
I suggest reporters request the agency’s FOI logs to see what kinds of records might be out there. Most agencies track who requested records, when the records were requested, when they were provided, and the record description. Some journalists use this to see what the competition is up to, which I think is a kind of cheap. But it’s so important to have these records public. In Chicago, the mayor recently announced he would post FOI logs online for anyone to see, which is GREAT! Some journalists are complaining, saying it’s a tactic to thwart reporters (see Reporters Committee blurb and Chicago Sun-Times story). Maybe it is an attempt by the mayor to jab the media, which illustrates how agencies are strategic about controlling information and the media (and why we need to be strategic about getting information). But regardless of the possible intent, having that information public is essential for people to know how our agencies are processing records. We can’t argue for FOI and then call for records to be muzzled just because it’s inconvenient for our jobs. Several studies have examined federal FOIA logs to see what percentage of requesters are journalists (5-14%), commercial users (about 66%) and the public/non-profits (25%). Some scholars have used these types of records to show that agencies delay or deny requests more often to journalists than for other users (see compilation of research at the Art of Access website). So make sure you have access to this information – and go get it!
21. Be careful with privacy-oriented records
In my survey research I’ve found that the public strongly supports public-safety records to be made public, such as crime, dam inspection data, location of chemical dangers, and sex offenders. However, if records have a hint of privacy then people tend to demonstrate less support (e.g., property tax, divorce records). In posting records or data online, make sure to explain the public importance if there is a privacy concern. Highlight records that have a public safety function.
22. Team up with celebrity staffer
Add oomph and authority to your request by having it come from, or co-authored by, someone who has perceived power or popularity. Ask the editor or publisher to sign your request. Or team up with a popular columnist on staff. Authority is a compelling psychological tactic in accessing records.
23. Tap into great reporting guides online
Reporters often face attacks on access to places. For great guides on how to handle these situations, as well as the law in accessing police scenes and other locales, check out the Reporters Committee’s guides on access to places, their nice reporter’s field guide, as well as one on access to Indian reservations. SPJ has a guide on access to prisons. Know your rights, and your limitations!
24. Spread freedom in your own community
Here are some ideas for spreading freedom in your own community:
- Editorialize and write about the importance of liberty and freedom. Explain the practical benefits of voting, volunteering, getting involved in local government. Highlight the dangers of ignoring these principles through reminders of history (e.g., Stalin, Nazi Germany, Japanese interment camps, secret prisons, wiretapping innocent citizens).
- Include sidebars and boxes with stories explaining where records can be obtained and explaining the fundamental reasons for why you had access to the information in your story.
- Speak at community groups – Rotary, League of Women Voters, parent-teacher associations, writers groups, etc. Speak to high school civics classes.
- Teach community education classes on “Journalism for Citizens,” providing helpful tips and skills on getting information, verifying facts, ethics, photography, video, and writing clearly (heck, maybe people would pay to attend such sessions at your newsroom offices).
- Carve out a public service budget to pay for billboards and ads promoting First Amendment freedoms.
- Put together an annual access project for national Sunshine Week, held each March.
- Conduct your own statewide or regional access tour to speak to smaller newsrooms or citizen groups. It’s not difficult and people appreciate it. Good for grooming up-and-coming stars, to improve the hiring pool.
- Create a coalition for open government in your state, if you don’t have one. If you do, get involved and keep it strong. See the list of state coalitions at the National Freedom of Information Coalition (a co-sponsor for this tour).
- Join SPJ! Support the fight for your rights! The group has had a hit to membership, just like many others. We need to stand strong, side-by-side, or we will lose our rights. Freedom ain’t free (it costs a $1.05, or maybe a little more, but it’s worth it).
25. Team with others to fight for access
Appoint someone at your organization to create alliances in public records battles, such as an editorial page editor or manager who does not cover political issues regularly and has more leeway in working with outside groups. Second, we have to get away from the idea that this is inside baseball or a “press” issue. There are no FOI police. When government illegally denies records it is our ethical, moral and professional responsibility to take up the fight. Yes, we must avoid conflicts of interests and remain free of associations that would damage credibility, but we also must “be vigilant and courageous about holding those in power accountable,” according to the SPJ code of ethics. The code includes: “Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.” Also, note the very first sentence of the code of ethics, explaining our purpose on this earth: “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” It is our duty to fight for enlightenment, truth and information – for the good of the country.
26. Get cell phone numbers before you push for records
Melody Dare, an assistant editor at the Rockmart Journal in Georgia, provided a good tip about source development. When you first start a beat and are getting to know sources, explain that you will do your best to be accurate and fair, and that it is your job to write the good and the bad – that people will need to expect you to push for information because it is your job. While you are meeting people in that brief honeymoon period, ask for cell phone numbers from all your sources. Then later, after that story comes out that torques your sources, you will have those numbers for when you need them.
27. Team with similar reporters in other cities
Stay charged up by teaming up with journalists from other organizations. If you’re an education reporter, find an education reporter at a similar-sized organization in your state and work together on a project. Get statewide data and divide up the work. Come out with a nice beefy piece, localized to each of your communities. Make an impact. You’ll also make a friend – a colleague who understands your beat. Support each other. Keep charged.
28. Steal record ideas from other journalists
Similarly, stay charged up by looking at inspirational reporting online while you’re at home watching bad TV (I do this while watching reality television). Check out the Extra Extra stories posted and archived by subject at www.ire.org. Even better, join IRE and have access to a 25,000-story online morgue of investigative stories, keyword searchable. Not to mention their tipsheets from conferences, also online for members, keyword searchable. Check out the SPJ Open Doors publication, or Joe Adams’ “hit records”. Charles Davis and I have started posting document ideas on our Art of Access website as well. Look at award-winning work, such as the Pulitzer winners or the SDX awards. See previous post on appointing a doc cheerleader, a post on inspirational videos and one on spreading FOI fervor in your community. Get inspired so government doesn’t take advantage of you.
29. Use outrageous rumors to your advantage
When you hear rumors of something up, go to officials and tell them the rumors, which are often worse than reality. For example, “I heard the principal ran off with a woman and stole thousands of dollars. We’re looking into it. Any comments?” The agency will say, “No, no, no, you can’t print that! It was the secretary who stole $500 from the student-body account. It wasn’t anything like you describe. Here’s the information…”
30. Provide government-issue FOI guides
If an agency doesn’t believe you that a record is public, provide open-government manuals from official entities they would respect, such as the state attorney general’s office or the state’s association for cities and towns. Often those entities provide guides to cities and other local jurisdictions. The cities might not believe you, but they might believe their peers or the AG, the highest government attorney in the state.
31. Publish column on records for everyday life
Publish a weekly column in your newspaper or on your Web site about “Records for Everyday Life,” providing each week a cool record that people can use to improve their lives. Jennifer LaFleur, formerly of The Dallas Morning News and now with ProPublica, used to write a column like this, called Citizen Watchdog. It was awesome. Every paper should do this. Not only is it news-you-can-use that citizens appreciate, but it fosters public support for government records because they see the practical utility of them.
32. Identify the roadblock to eliminate it
Figure out the real reason for the denial – what is making the clerk nervous about releasing the record? Is it because there is one piece of information that is particularly sensitive (involving a child victim)? Is it because the clerk is afraid of getting in trouble by releasing it? Once you know the reason for the denial then you can work through the issues (e.g., talk about the potential balancing test of privacy and public interest, talk to a higher-up so that person doesn’t get in trouble). A study by Michele Kimball of the University of South Alabama showed that law enforcement clerks are sometimes arbitrary in whether they give out a legally disclosable document, depending on whether they think the person deserves it. For example, they will often provide victims records for free. But if they think the requester is out to get someone in the records they might say the record is secret to protect people in the records. They aren’t supposed to do that, but it often happens. By the way, when you write a story about the secrecy, make sure to name the specific person who is denying the record, and let that person know he or she will be named as the person responsible. Don’t just name the agency in general. That will make the person think twice.
33. Ask for electronic files in native format (meta-data)
Make sure to ask for electronic files in their “native format.” So if they were Word documents, as for copies of the original Word documents. Then check the properties of the file to see who created it, who changed it, when it was changed, etc (on PC, right-click on the file icon and pick “properties,” then look at the various tabs of info). You might find that the file was edited or changed by someone.
34. Start with easy records
Go out and get something easy. Julia Chapman, a publications fellow for the Student Press Law Center, said a lot of student journalists don’t go out and seek records. Heck, I’ve visited with a lot of professional journalists who have never requested records, are intimidated to ask, and have never requested a record. Frank LoMonte, executive director of SPLC, told me in their Arlington, Va., offices this morning, that he suggests people start with simple records, like restaurant inspections. They are easy to get and have high local impact. “Start easy. Don’t star with something that is a long shot and will take a long time.” Also, Frank said, don’t assume a denial from a school based on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is based on the law. Most of the time the schools misapply the law (check SPJ’s Reporter’s Guide to FERPA for more details). Also, make sure to check the SPLC Web site for the latest news in student press rights, gleaned by the summer interns, Sommer Ingram from Baylor University and Josh Moore from Western Kentucky University. Here are some other easy records: Budgets, pet licenses, meeting minutes and agendas, sex offender data, school testing records, inspections (gas pumps, store scanners, pools, hotels, etc.).
35. Find the helpful clerk to guide you
Find the “librarian” of the agency, said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, also housed in a nice office building in Arlington, Va. Rick said it’s helpful to have someone to talk to you if you don’t know where a record is. Someone at an agency who can tell you what the record is called and where it might be, “like a librarian sitting at a desk ready to take 15 minutes to help you find the book you need.” This is a great tip. No use wasting a lot of time browsing thousands of book shelves for a record. Ask the person at the agency who knows what is kept and where. Call around until you find that person.
36. Check out Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Know the Web site for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. This is an awesome organization that fights for journalists’ rights, particularly in freedom of information. Mark Caramanica is the new FOIA director for RCFP, as he wraps up his Ph.D. from the University of Florida. He’s been on the job for about a month and is there to help reporters who have problems with accessing records. The RCFP Web site has tons of useful guides for reporters in its reading room. Check them out!
37. Use new federal ombudsman office for problems with U.S. FOIA requests
Know the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the new federal ombudsman for accessing public records. This office, started last fall is OUTSTANDING (and I don’t put things in all-caps often). I met with the staffers today in their offices in College Park, Md., and I was impressed. First, they are housed in the National Archives, which is cool (better than being house by the Department of Justice). Second, their staff is comprised of experts from both sides – requesters and government, including the former FOIA director of RCFP. Outstanding people. If you have a problem getting records from a federal agency, call or e-mail this office. They get about 5-10 queries a day and try to help mediate between requesters and agencies. They have so far handled several hundred cases, with most of those resolved. The largest issue seems to be when agencies deny requests (28 percent of their cases).
38. Let loose the hounds
If an agency is balking at giving out records that should be given out, call them up and talk about how your attorneys are ready to go to bat. Threat of lawsuit is very powerful. Of course, be ready to follow through. Another hard tactic is to apply public pressure by writing stories. Or create a running box on your editorial pages called “Days of Denial” where you have a one-paragraph summary of how an agency has refused to provide legally disclosable records with a big number each day representing how many days the agency has kept the information secret.
39. Join the FOI-listserv
This listserv is run by Barbara Fought of Syracuse University. You’ll find people who have problems getting records, with experts willing to provide thoughts. You’ll also see the breadth of the FOI community, including some people who are watchdogging certain agencies or out for specific causes (e.g., exposing records documenting proof of UFOs). I find the listserv helpful. For more details, check out the NFOIC Web site with how to sign up. Also, if you are into government data, check out the NICAR listserv (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting).
40. Carry public records law in your wallet/purse
Jeff Inglis, president of the Maine SPJ chapter, copied the Maine Freedom of Access Act (cool name for a state public records law) and pasted it to a piece of paper, about 4-point font, and folded it up in a way so it fits in his wallet. When an official denies a public records request he simply pulls out the law and asks politely where in the law it says the record can be kept secret. If the official doesn’t believe that he has the whole state public records law on the double-sided sheet of paper he shows them the law on a website. If you can, carry along a copy of the law printed by your state’s association of cities, which government officials are going to trust.
41. Copy other officials on your requests
Shaun Sutner, a member of the paper’s investigative reporting team, said that when he requests a record via e-mail he’ll often cc others, such as the person’s supervisor or the state public records supervisor, so the official knows that others are aware of the request. It’s more difficult to ignore or deny a request when others are aware of its existence.
42. Pull together conservative, liberal think tanks for access
Get conservative and liberal think tanks together to fight for open government. Jack Hoffman is working with two such organizations in Vermont to gather government data and put it online for citizens at Vermont Transparency. Jack covered the state Legislature for 20 years for the Vermont Press Bureau, so he knows his way around state government. For the past few years he’s been working for the liberal Public Assets Institute to help citizens get government data online in usable, easily searchable formats. The liberal group has joined with the conservative Ethan Allen Institute to create this transparency website. It goes to show that government transparency and accountability is bipartisan! I’ve seen a variety of government-accountability non-profits throughout the country fight for transparency – the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Washington state, the Show Me Institute in Missouri, and the Mackinac Center in Michigan. All of these groups are great allies in pushing for open, accountable government. I’ve been told that every state has such a group in some form or another. Involve them in your fights, and in your coalitions!
43. Try mediation to resolve disputes
Consider trying mediation or dispute resolution to resolve sticky access battles. Sometimes it’s easier than going to court. Buglione said requesters and agencies have the option to seek mediation before going through a more involved appeal process and litigation. Sometimes agencies would rather mediate a dispute so it doesn’t become public and embarrassing. It’s a good way to let them save face and avoid expensive and timely court time.
44. Memorialize your veterans with records
To get an individual’s service records, go to the National Archives & Records Administration Web site. Next of kin (father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, unremarried surviving spouse) of deceased veterans can order up the information free online at this site. A similar online ordering form is available at The National Archives. If you aren’t next of kin or if the person is still alive, you can still get some information. You just have to fill out a written form instead of doing it online. Snag Standard Form 180 at The National Archives Web site, or fill out a formal FOIA request letter. They ask you to fill out as much information as you can, including full name, SSN, Date of birth, place of birth, service branch. But if you don’t know it all, that’s OK. They’ll give it their best shot to find the person. You will get a Report of Separation (DD Form 214), which verifies service and reason for separation.
45. Memorialize fallen journalists
Check out the atrocities toward the press at the CPJ website and remember what we are fighting for – keeping our country from going down the same path as those countries. Most journalist deaths aren’t in the U.S. They are in Iraq, Mexico, Africa, Pakistan, etc. Deaths do happen here, and when they do we often rally. Don Bolles’ death in Phoenix on June 13, 1976, led to the formation of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Oakland (Calif.) Post editor Chauncey Bailey’s death in 2007 led to an incredible investigative project online (great document work). When you argue for open police records, in addition to arguing on behalf of citizens who want to know what crimes are happening in their neighborhoods, argue that transparent law enforcement is necessary to prevent abuses of excessive force, brutality, and intimidation of political foes. THAT is why we need openness and a strong press. Without that we head down the same path as those other countries where press rights are trampled and citizen liberties squashed.
46. Send letters to oppose secrecy legislation
Contact SPJ to see if they can write a letter opposing secrecy. It’s helpful if local journalists lead the charge because they are known by the lawmakers and know the nuances better. Summarize the issue for SPJ national. You can even write a draft letter if you want. Then the FOI Committee chair and president can put in some quotes, sign it and get it back. Get all the SPJ chapters in the state to sign off on the letter. Then get it to all the media. Encourage folks to write editorials. This kind of pressure can do wonders.
47. Join SPJ to improve your access skills
Join SPJ online right now to enhance your FOI powers! Here are some practical benefits, from an access perspective, of joining SPJ: Network with folks who care about FOI — Check out the FOI Committee members and feel free to e-mail them and develop contacts. Get special deals on cheaper contest entry fees for those great document-based stories. Get a break on conference registration fees, like the national convention Oct. 3-5 in Las Vegas (including a three-hour special training session I’ll teach on acquiring government data and putting it online for readers to search, not to mention other sessions on access to school records, among other topics). Access to special members-only training opportunities. Subscription to Quill magazine, which includes the “FOI Toolbox” column with practical tips for accessing records. Discounted services and deals so you can spend more money on document photocopies. The satisfaction that your membership dues will go toward SPJ’s efforts to keep government open, including letters opposing secrecy-oriented legislation (see yesterday’s post), talking with members of Congress to explain the importance of transparency, and joining or initiating court battles for records. Those reasons alone are enough to join, but don’t join for the practical reasons. Join because of our ideals. We don’t do this for the money. We do it because it makes the world better. It’s the right thing to do. Joining SPJ makes the world better. It’s the right thing to do. Join now!
48. Sketch the Circle of Light
This is a tip from Duff Wilson of The New York Times. When backgrounding someone, such as a candidate for political office, get out a piece of paper and write the person’s name in the middle. Then think of all the roles the person has in life – pet owner, property owner, spouse, boat owner, etc., and write each role around the name in a circle. Then jot down all the records around those roles that pertain to those roles. When you’re done you have a solar system of records to check out – a road map for your document search. Do this enough and you’ll be able to rattle off records on deadline.
49. Check out Freemind and Clusty
If you don’t like to manually write out stuff on paper, look for software to help you find connections. A participant in the St. Louis session mentioned the free software online called “Freemind” that you can use to do this on the computer. I checked it out and it looks interesting. Some people have suggested using social network software, although that can be a little clunky for casual use. Also, another participant suggested “Clusty,” which clusters Google hits by topic on a particular search (person you put in) by area so you can separate one John Smith from another John Smith. So if you put in “John Smith” in your Clusty search it will put together all the links for a particular one that shows up a lot. That way you don’t have to wade through pages and pages of Google pages sorting through all of them mixed up. Do you have other suggestions for documents-related software? E-mail me or post them here!
50. Focus on high-impact records to foster citizen support for FOI
Citizens get riled up when government ignores the plight of animals. People will become involved in their government and interested in accessing records. Examine the treatment of animals by your local animal control agency. Start easy by asking for pet license data. Do a feature, noting the most popular name and breed. Then examine which zip code has the least licenses per capita, and find out why (usually poor areas). Then examine businesses and agencies and how they treat animals. Check out non-profit shelters in your community – are they up to snuff? Write about what people care about – and explain how they can get involved and where they can get records. It’s crucial that average people be empowered to access their government, too!
51. Release the Kracken! Consider NFOIC litigation fund to sue agencies
If your organization can’t afford to sue, check out the new litigation fund coordinated by the National Freedom of Information Coalition, provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight FOI Fund will pay for up-front costs, such as court fees, depositions and initial consultation fees, if attorneys are willing to take cases that otherwise would go unfiled.
52. Check out places that provide access tips
Check out Web sites that provide useful tips for accessing records. Here are some other places where you can find more tips about accessing public records:
- FOI FYI blog. This SPJ blog provides access news and tips for accessing records. I usually post to it, along with Donald Myers from the SPJ FOI Committee. This summer, SPJ intern April Dudash has been posting (and doing a great job!). When I post I tend to focus on access tips (see the category link for “FOI Strategies and Tips,” on the right side of the page.
- The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records. This is the blog that Charles Davis and I post to in relation to our recent book by the same title. I haven’t posted lately because of this tour, but I’ll resume when I get back to Tucson!
- The FOI Advocate. This blog by the National Freedom of Information Coalition provides news about FOI as well as document ideas and some tips for strategies.
- The National Security Archive provides tips on submitting FOIA requests. You’ll find very good information about the U.S. FOIA process.
- Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides a section on its website for accessing records, including some tips from a frequent requester, and tips for requesting federal records and appealing.
- WikiFOIA provides tips and strategies for making requests.
- BRB Publications is a company that publishes a lot of books about where to find public records, often used by private investigators and other commercial users. Check out their website for tips on access and sources of information.
53. Teach yourself data acquisition
To teach yourself computer-assisted reporting, get yourself a copy of Brant Houston’s textbook on the matter, “Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide.” You can work through the chapters fairly quickly and have it down in a few weeks. It’s not that hard. Start small with easy databases, like your local pet licenses (find the most popular dog name and breed; or people who own the most pets). Check out the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting for other resources.
54. Educate readers about useful records
Educate citizens on their rights to public records, focusing on documents that have practical application in life. In my handouts I provide lists of records that can help people background babysitters or dates, buy a house, or avoid being ripped off. A couple of thoughts for doing this: 1. Write a weekly column or fixture that highlights a useful record; 2. Provide a box with every story that is based on a public record, explaining where the record came from (with address) and how people can find it themselves; 3. Create a package for national Sunshine Week each March explaining the process for getting public records and people’s right to information; 4. Provide pamphlets, Web sites, and community education sessions about “journalism for citizens” – tips for gathering information to benefit your life. Public support for FOI will pressure government to keep records open.
55. Dogpile on recalcitrant lawbreakers
Band together with other media to get important records from state government. A lot of journalists are reluctant to team with the competition, but it can be very effective, just like it has been in New Mexico. The focus is on serving citizens and fighting on their behalf. We have strength in numbers.
56. Sit in on sales staff training
David Puddu, publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, El Defensor Chieftain and Mountain View Telegraph, provided this great tip: Reporters should attend training sessions for sales staff to learn techniques for persuading people to do what you want (e.g., hand over records). “Sales skills are critical in this business to save time and get information through the most effective means possible,” he said. For example, one sales tip is to not take “no” for an answer. “You have to find a way.”
57. Get list of substitute teachers, run through Facebook
David Randall, from KTSM-TV in El Paso, provided this tip that I thought was cool. Request a list of all the teachers and substitute teachers in a school district. Then run the names through Facebook and My Space to see their pages. Some have pictures of themselves with bongs or in other situations that would be unbecoming of a teacher. Also run the substitutes through court records. You might find some interesting things! Of course, triple-check to make sure you have the right person matched with the correct inappropriate photo and criminal record.