Archive for the ‘open meetings’ Category


18 Ways to Fight Censoring PIOs

Over the last 20 years there’s been a surge in government offices and other employers prohibiting staff from ever speaking with journalists unless they first ask the public information officer or some person in management.

In addition to the surveillance factor that silences employees about most anything the bosses would not like, the policies often cause massive delays and officials frequently deny interview requests outright. Or they sit in on interviews or do other obstruction or manipulation.

SPJ has a good picture of this now. Carolyn Carlson of Kennesaw State University has now done seven surveys on behalf of the organization and they show a national culture interlaced with censorship. Most reporters who cover federal agencies say they must get PIO approval to interview agency employees and most say the public is not getting all the information it needs because of such restrictions. Forty percent of public agency PIOs say they block specific reporters because of “problems with their stories in the past.”

State and local, science and education reporters confirm the same kinds of problems.

Particularly chilling, most police reporters say they can rarely or never talk to a police officer without involving a PIO. And police PIOs say they must monitor interviews for reasons like, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”

What should journalists do?

Most importantly, go after the “Censorship by PIO” like the deep corruption it is. Any entity that prohibits people from communicating except when they notify the authorities is keeping information from the public. And that’s a misallocation of resources as serious as any other we investigate. It also creates an opacity that’s fertile ground for malfeasance and an unconscionable conflict of interest allowing officials to strangle investigation of their actions.

Investigate how long has it been happening in your area. Why do officials feel they have a right to do this? How often are delays and blockages happening? What about the fact that many times staff have tipped reporters off to serious issues? Are officials trying to stop that process?

Home in on one incident or series of nonresponses. Who in the food chain said a staff person could not speak? What was withheld? What were the power plays and the political motivations?

Ask why the public should trust official reasoning like, “We have to coordinate the story. We just want to know what is going on. We need to tell reporters the right person to talk to.”

Explain it to the public. It’s not “inside baseball.” It’s the public’s business. If you don’t feel you can write an unbiased news story, make it an editorial.

Explain it when it happens. Don’t just say, “XYZ agency declined to make an expert available.”  Say, “XYZ agency prohibits all employees from speaking to the press about anything unless they notify the press office. It often denies such interviews. The PIO did not explain why experts could not speak to this reporter.”

Collaborate with journalists, news organizations and journalism groups on resistance. When agencies hold press conferences or briefings have reporters take turns asking why journalists can’t speak to people in the agency without the PIO guards. And report the response.

Don’t kid yourself that your great reporting skills get you all you need to know. We have no right to take that risk. Millions of employees have been told to shut up. So chances are good some silenced staff people—including those you talked to after going through the PIO—could blow your award-winning story out of the water. Or educate you about the mind-blowing stories you don’t have a clue about.

Remember that journalists’ acquiescence to “Censorship by PIO” is just as dangerous as the worst thing it will keep covered up. For instance, the press did hundreds of stories that CDC and FDA handed out over the last couple of years. But with PIO guards on us, we didn’t get—and probably could never have gotten—the fact that there were not strong, consensus guidelines for Ebola containment in place and there was a storeroom for pathogens that hadn’t been inventoried in decades (the one that contained smallpox).

Remember that likely the biggest reason we can’t do anything about these restraints is that journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.

In the meantime, as we fight the policies, we are obliged to use all techniques possible to undermine the blockages. For that:

Rely on PIOs as little as possible. Get away from PIO and agency oversight whenever you can, including during routine reporting. Many people will say something different away from the guards. Find out for yourself who you should talk to. Analyze staff listings, hearings and meeting agendas. Ask outside source people who in the agency works on the issue. Use search engines and literature searches to pinpoint who in an agency spoke or wrote on an issue. Then study the hierarchy to understand their position in it and other people close to them you might talk to.

Contact people directly and tell them you want to talk to them, even if you have to contact the PIO also. Sometimes the internal expert will advocate for the interview.

Interview outside sources and then contact the inside source persons in hopes they will want to respond to what you know.

When you talk to a source person, even if the PIO is listening in, ask who outside the agency is working on the issue. The source person may mention an interest group or person that the agency is actually talking to.

Consider holding the source person, particularly if they are an official, responsible: “Mr. Doe did not respond to attempts to contact him.” They should be responsive even if agency cultural norm is to hide behind the PIO.

Keep a running descriptive list of responses and nonresponses and hold agency leadership and elected officials accountable. Consider keeping the list on the web.

At least occasionally, do a series of incessant follow-ups. I contacted CDC about newborn circumcision 20 times as PIOs repeatedly refused to let me talk to their experts. Then I wrote a press release about it. Let your audience know what subjects the agencies are blocking information on.

Go to obscure meetings or sessions. Speakers sometimes forget reporters could be there. If possible, sign in as a member of the public, not as press.

Regularly give agency staff every possible way to contact you.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the IRE Journal.


Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at kfoxhall@verizon.net.

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Hear It from a Journocriminal

photo_spj_fannin-focus-saga-panelists-left-to-right-spj-president-elect-dan-whisenhunt_fannin-focus-publisher-mark-thomason_dr-caorlyn-carlson

Let’s turn our attention to a real Georgia journalist who went to real jail for making a real public records request—really.

From the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s July 1 piece:

A North Georgia newspaper publisher was indicted on a felony charge and jailed overnight last week – for filing an open-records request.

Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason, along with his attorney Russell Stookey, were arrested on Friday and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request.

Here’s AJC’s nut graph:

Thomason was charged June 24 with making a false statement in an open-records request in which he asked for copies of checks “cashed illegally.” Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they did not get Weaver’s approval before sending subpoenas to banks where Weaver and another judge maintained accounts for office expenses. Weaver suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information on the checks.


Thomason Speaks at SPJ Region 3’s MediAtlanta

Thomason told his story at Region 3’s annual conference, dubbed MediAtlanta, on Oct. 29—you can watch the whole thing above. He’s in the center, to his left SPJ Georgia president-elect Dan Whisenhunt, to his right Kennesaw State University Professor and FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson. Video by Nydia Tisdale.

You can read SPJ Georgia board member Julius Suber’s review of the event here.

Photo above courtesy of Julius Suber.

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Jailing of the Press

Big names like Amy Goodman may shout loudly enough that after soliciting national media’s attention, judges drop silly charges that critically challenge their freedom of the press. But not everyone has that kind of pull, and not everyone sees the law play in its favor.

Down in Dawson County, Ga., where less than 25,000 (mostly white) people live, committing acts of journalism can land you in jail.

Nydia Tisdale learned this after years of covering public meetings without any connection to a newspaper, just in fulfilling what she considers her calling: Citizen journalism.

SPJ Florida president, national SPJ Diversity Committee chair, and overall badass Dori Zinn has the story…


Georgia Citizen Journalist Facing Criminal Charges for Recording Public Meeting

By Dori Zinn

Nydia Tisdale showed up to record a Georgia Republican Party campaign rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville on Aug. 23, 2014.

A little bit into her recording, she was forcibly removed by a police officer, even after admitting she had received permission to be at the public gathering by one of the property owners. In the video, you can hear her crying, “Help! Help! Help!” and shouting at the officer, “Identify yourself!” and “Let go of me!” She demanded his name and badge number. He refused to give it to her. He forced her out of the public meeting area into an empty barn, bending her over a countertop and pressing his groin against her backside, leaving her with bruises and emotional distress long after her arrest.

It wouldn’t be until later, when two other officers arrive, that the officer gives Tisdale his name: Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Tony Wooten.

Tisdale was arrested and her video camera was confiscated. Later that day, she was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer, a felony. Shortly after midnight, she was released on bond and five days after that, she got her camera back.

How did she get here?

This isn’t Tisdale’s first recording. In fact, Tisdale has set up her camera for years, recording hundreds of public meetings across northern Georgia. To date, she’s been recording public meetings across the state, totaling almost 900 videos in six years.

Tisdale doesn’t even call herself a reporter. “A reporter is employed,” she says. “Once they don’t have a job, they become a journalist.”

She may have a different view of what a “reporter” is, but her work is many, many acts of journalism.

“I call myself a video journalist or citizen journalist. Really, just a single woman with a camera,” she says. “No one is dictating to me what to cover and what not to cover.”

In 2009, she was working as a property manager when there was a proposed landfill near the zoning of the property she was managing at the time.

“I was very involved in researching everything I could about the project, and I discovered over time that it wasn’t compliant with state law,” she says.

Eventually, the applicant withdrew his application, but that didn’t stop Forsyth County, where the proposal was set, from misleading the public into believing a landfill would be put there.

Tisdale went to the county meetings, speaking out against the proposal. Even after the landfill fight was over, she met with the county officials to point out all the mistakes they made, including taking advantage of the applicant, who was out tens of thousands of dollars in engineer fees, attorney fees, and paying the county.

“I’m a layperson, I don’t have a degree in this, I’m not a planner,” Tisdale says. “How come I can find these mistakes and all these people that are paid to do it can’t find these mistakes?”

Eventually, the city planner was fired. It was then that Tisdale realized sharing information from public meetings and open forums was important to her.

“With news media shrinking staff, local government isn’t being covered,” she says. “Citizen journalism fills in that gap.”

Tisdale journalism

Tisdale used to easily put 80 to 100 miles on her car a day covering a meeting. She can get around the state if she chooses, but typically stays in north Georgia. Early on, she would record three meetings a day if they were in the same location, but now she goes to about two to three meetings a week.

It’s not limited to one type of meeting, either. She’ll go to city council meetings, county commission meetings, republican and democrat meetings, citizen forums, debates, and literally anything that is open to the public that informs citizens and voters.

When she arrives at whatever meeting she’s going to, she’ll get some shots of the building or the area around where the meeting is being held. Then she’ll record the meeting in its entirety. “Gavel to gavel,” she says.

From there, she edits very little of her actual recording. She indexes her videos, so if you want to skip ahead to a certain part, it’s easy. Sometimes, if one part is more meaningful than the rest, she’ll make an excerpt of it.

“I give the full context and speech,” she says. “It’s unfiltered and without commentary.”

While Tisdale has been hired to film some public meetings, she doesn’t normally get paid. But she does have a PayPal donation option on her website, AboutForsyth.com. Journalism isn’t her primary source of income, but it occupies as much time as a full-time journalism job.

When she started attending meetings and realized they weren’t compliant with Georgia Sunshine Laws, she’d complain to the city, county, or whatever body was in charge of that meeting. Now she carries around a copy of it to every meeting she attends, sometimes handing out copies to other people.

Despite her solid six years and 900 videos, this is her first time facing jail time for recording open meetings.

What’s happening now?

Tisdale’s original 2014 charges — a misdemeanor criminal trespass and a felony obstruction of an officer — got an additional obstruction of an officer charge, this time as a misdemeanor, bringing her total to three. She was indicted on Nov. 16, 2015 in Dawson County, but not before giving an ante litem notice — an intent to sue — on Aug. 20, 2015 to everyone involved in the 2014 arrest, including: Dawson County, the Sheriff’s office, the three officers that arrested Tisdale, and Johnny and Kathy Burt of Burt’s Farm, among others.

She was formally arraigned this year on March 15 and filed her federal lawsuit against the three officers that arrested her on May 9, including Officer Tony Wooten. On Aug. 22, she made a complaint to Dawson County about Wooten’s physical abuse during her arrest and an incident report was made the next day, alleging sexual assault. Wooten resigned from the Dawson County Sherriff’s Office the same day.

In early October, Tisdale had a pre-trial motions hearing in her criminal case, but no judgment has been made.

Jail time may be pending for Tisdale, but she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“I really enjoy what I do. It’s a passion,” she says. “Any event that’s worth remembering, I usually have a camera and I record it.”


Dori Zinn is a full-time freelance journalist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her work has been featured in MoneyTalksNews.com, Realtor.com, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, South Florida Gay News, and others.

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Must read FOI stories – 7/18/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

Special congrats to the FOIA advocacy website MuckRock, they got a shout out from the Daily Show this week for one of their FOIA requests:

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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Must read FOI stories – 7/11/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • A CIA employee with the highest level of security clearance tried to get the agency to release info that was a decade old. They told him no, so he submitted a FOIA request and it “destroyed his entire career.”
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting is collecting ideas on how to improve the FOIA request process. Have ideas? Fill out the form here.
  • Two local activist groups file suit against a Florida county claiming that the commission skirted state open-government laws in allowing a controversial business park to go forward.
  • Which U.S. agencies sprung for the extra legroom provided by first class? MuckRock obtained Agency Premium Travel Reportswhich show how millions in upgrade fees were spent from 2009-2013.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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Sunshine Week 2014: Two new studies released

On the eve of Sunshine Week 2014, SPJ released the results from two surveys about journalists’ experience with obtaining public information. The studies were led by Dr. Carolyn S. Carlson — a communication professor from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information committee — and Megan Roy, Carlson’s graduate research assistant.

The surveys specifically document reporters’ perceptions about whether government press offices interfere with reporting.

The first survey sponsored by SPJ was of political and general assignment reporters working at the state and local level. The vast majority of reporters who took this survey said the amount of control has been increasing over the past several years and they see it only getting worse over the next few years. They agreed the current level of media control by PIOs is an impediment to providing information to the public. Download and read the complete report [PDF, 468 KB] here.

For the second survey, SPJ joined with the Education Writers Association to focus on the nation’s education reporters. Journalists indicated that public information officers often require pre-approval for interviews, decide whom reporters get to interview and often monitor interviews. Sometimes they will prohibit interviews altogether. Education writers overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that “the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.” Download and read the complete report [PDF, 417 KB] here.

Transcripts of remarks from the National Press Club’s “When Press Offices Block the Press” event [PDF]
Introduction by Kathryn Foxhall
Carolyn Carlson
SPJ President David Cuillier
Emily Richmond, EWA Public Editor

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FOI Daily Dose: Virginia county supervisor questions closed meeting discussion

A Virginia county supervisor called out fellow supervisors for violating Virginia’s open government laws during a closed session performance evaluation, according to The Virginia Gazette.

Before and after the closed session on July 23, supervisors had to certify that they would only discuss issues related to the performance of a county administrator.

But the day after the closed session, James County Supervisor Jim Kennedy emailed other supervisors saying he was “uncomfortable” that they also used the meeting to discuss the issue of keeping backyard chickens.

Virginia lawmakers have been in an ongoing debate about homeowners’ rights to keep and raise chickens for eggs and food. Raising chickens in some residential areas is illegal.

Kennedy said he brought the issue up for discussion at the meeting, but he did not intend the discussion to result in policy and “pages of notes,” according to The Gazette.

“I believe we all participated in a violation of public trust, and went outside the scope of the closed session and would ask (county attorney) Leo (Rogers) for his opinion,” Kennedy said in an email.

Supervisors are not supposed to discuss any material not related to an administrator’s evaluation during a closed session. Kennedy thinks their discussion was not relevant to the evaluation. Other supervisors say it was.

“Our discussions were entirely appropriate,” Supervisor John McGlennon told The Gazette. “I would say it was entirely appropriate for the Board, in evaluating the county administrator and the county attorney, to discuss issues related to our expectations of the administrator and provide direction to county staff on what the Board is concerned about.”

Rogers told The Virginia Gazette on July 26 that he was not present during the closed session, so he cannot make an opinion on whether or not the discussion was for evaluation purposes. But Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said if the administrators certified the closed session and knowingly discussed other matters, they’re breaking the law.

“Certainly I can see why it’s difficult to stick to the topic, but it absolutely has to be done,” Rhyne told The Gazette.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.
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FOI Daily Dose: Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling; National Press Club debates practices of public affairs offices

Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling

An Illinois attorney clarified a public records ruling issued July 16 by the Fourth District Appellate Court, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The ruling said emails and text messages sent during public meetings about public business are public records.

But Peter Friedman, a Lake Bluff village attorney and a partner at Holland & Knight, clarified that the ruling does not apply to any electronic communications not pertaining to public business or those sent outside of board meetings.

“The appellate court correctly determined that private electronic communications outside the context of a board meeting are not public records under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act),” Friedman told the Tribune.

 National Press Club debating practices of federal public affairs offices

The National Press Club in Washington, DC,  is hosting a panel on Aug. 12 to debate whether federal public affairs practices are more of a hindrance or a help to reporters.

Public affairs offices typically require reporters to go through the press office to arrange interviews.

Those skeptical of the process complain that it limits who they interview. They are also frustrated that some companies require members of the communications team to be present with employees during their interview, according to the Press Club.

Other people feel public affairs professionals ensure that the press gets accurate information and a coherent message.

The debate will feature a panel of experts on both sides of the issue. The panel will be moderated by John M. Donnelly, chairman of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Committee and a senior writer with CQ Roll Call.

Panel experts include:

  • Linda Petersen: Managing editor, The Valley Journals of Salt Lake; chairwoman SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee; and president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government
  • Carolyn Carlson: Former AP reporter; past SPJ national president; assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta; and author of two surveys on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press
  • John Verrico: President-elect of the National Association of Government Communicators
  • Kathryn Foxhall: Freelance reporter who has extensively researched the issue
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FOI Daily Dose: Judge dismisses North Carolina public records lawsuit for confidential settlement; Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

Judge dismisses N.C. public records lawsuit against hospital chain for confidential settlement

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit a Charlotte attorney filed against one of the nation’s largest public hospital chains for violating the North Carolina public records law, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner ruled that the hospital chain, Carolinas HealthCare System, can legally keep a confidential settlement from its 2008 lawsuit against the former Wachovia Bank (see previous post).

Since the hospital chain’s board of directors made the settlement in a closed session and kept it confidential, attorney Gary Jackson filed a public records request to inspect it and ensure it’s fair.

In a hearing last week, attorneys for Carolinas HealthCare argued that the hospital chain can legally withhold the settlement because the state’s public records laws has many holes.

But Jackson said legislators never intended the law to allow confidential settlements in lawsuits involving government agencies, so he plans to appeal Sumner’s ruling to the N.C. Court of Appeals, according to The Observer.

The Observer notes that former state Senator David Hoyle who sponsored most North Carolina public records laws, agrees with Jackson.

“The intent was that if it becomes a court case, the results of the settlement were to be made public,” Hoyle told The Observer.

Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

As Pennsylvania lawmakers weigh a series of potential changes to the state’s 5-year-old Right-to-Know law, the head of Pennsylvania’s open records agency is telling them to proceed with caution, according to NewsWorks.

The Senate is considering one piece of legislation to address problems with the state’s open records, and the House has at least 10 different proposals.

But Terry Mutchler, director of the Office of Open Records, told NewsWorks some of the changes proposed in the name of open government could deny certain populations, such as prison inmates, the right to access information and exempt information from public requests.

“While the intent is good, I have some concerns with the results,” Mutchler told NewsWorks.

But until the legislature decides to change Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, a recent Commonwealth Court decision could mean more access to information from state-related universities, according to Watchdog News.

In the case of Ryan Bagwell v. Department of Education, Bagwell, a Penn State alumnus, requested information about the Jerry Sandusky investigation, including emails, letters, reports and memos sent to then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis. The Commonwealth Court decided since the records are part of the education secretary’s job dealing with state-related universities, they should be released, Watchdog News said.

Mutchler expects the decision to have a “domino effect” on similar cases, and she expects the state to expand the Right-to-Know law for state-related universities.

“I am grateful the Legislature took its time with deciding this question, because it has to be done right, and it has to be done well, and the implications of it have to be thought through,” Mutchler told Watchdog News.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Site that opens Denver checkbook should continue adding information, watchdogs say

Citizens and reporters in Denver, Colo., will no longer have to file public records requests to learn some of the ways the city spends tax dollars.

Denver city and county launched a website July 17 revealing the city’s financial reports, investments, residential- and business-property records and city-owned properties for sale, according to the Denver Post.

The site, called Transparent Denverfeatures a checkbook that will be automatically updated daily so citizens can see how the city is spending its $900 million annual budget.

“This site opens the book of city government,” Kennedy told the Post. “The goal, as the mayor indicated, is to really improve the level of trust so people can see how their tax dollars are being spent.”

Cary Kennedy, Denver’s chief financial officer, told the Post that five years of city spending data are already available, and the website has a link to the city’s annual financial report.

But some news organizations and watchdog groups say there is still critical information missing from the site.

For instance, FOX31 Denver points out that even though the website lists dollar values of expense reimbursements for officials when they travel, it does not provide specific details about what they are reimbursed for, such as airline tickets, cabs or dinners.

“I think a lot of people will say, OK you got reimbursed $1,861 for this trip, but we don’t know if you went to the Four Seasons for dinner. We don’t know if you had wine on the taxpayers dime. So how can we improve the system? So, it’s more transparent?,” investigative reporter Tak Landrock told FOX31 Denver.

FOX31 also pointed out that the website shows the city spent $1.6 million dollars using credit cards, but it does not show what they purchased with the cards.

Kennedy told FOX31 Denver that posting credit card statements could “boggle down the webpage,” but taxpayers who have questions can email the city for more information.

Employee payroll is also missing from the site, but Wil Alston, director of communications for the finance department, told the Post that taxpayers can access this information through Colorado open records requests.

Kennedy said the website will continue developing to make numbers more accessible.

Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch, a non-profit government accountability group, told FOX31 the website is a good start, but leaders should continue make information more available.

“I think you can always get more web capacity. The computers are getting more powerful and people’s internet speeds are getting better,” Toro said. “Technology is very good in this area to solve those problems.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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