Archive for the ‘Freedom of Information’ Category


Cowboy Boots, Convos and the Code of Ethics

SPJ votes

SPJ delegates vote during the closing business session at EIJ14. Photo by Jeff Cutler.

I’m just returning home from a whirlwind trip to Nashville for the 2014 Excellence in Journalism conference, held in partnership with RTDNA. With more than 900 attendees in town to participate, there was a lot of fun to be had – but much serious business to be conducted as well.

From the CNN-sponsored kickoff at Wildhorse Saloon where we showed off our cowboy boots through the Sunday morning board meetings of SPJ and RTDNA, EIJ14 was action packed. In addition to programs, business meetings, super sessions and socials, SPJ highlights include:

–        The passage of a revised Code of Ethics, the first update since 1996, was one of the weekend’s biggest accomplishments. Passionately and sometimes heatedly discussed during an ethics town hall session and the closing business session, Ethics Committee members, interested SPJ members and chapter delegates worked together to hammer out details, making additional revisions, line edits and suggestions to ultimately come up with a document satisfactory to the majority of delegates. The new Code is a collaborative effort of those volunteers and the hundreds of folks who commented on the Code over the course of the last year.

The Code will never satisfy everyone, nor will it address every ethical issue we might be faced with. Rather it is a collective body of work that SPJ can be proud of. To keep the Code relevant and to provide guidance to those using or teaching the Code, the Ethics Committee will work on providing notes, position papers, links and other supplemental materials available online. Under the leadership of new committee chairman Andrew Seaman, the committee is already working on collecting and preparing those materials. This aggregation will be an ongoing process, and the committee will seek suggestions and input from SPJ’s 7,500+ members and anyone else who’d like to offer feedback. Click here to share your input with the committee.

–        Approval of an endowed “Forever Fund” to support SPJ’s advocacy efforts. Nicknamed by immediate past president Dave Cuillier the ‘Legal Offense Fund,’ this fund will initially be funded via the Legal Defense Fund. As our new FOI chair, Cuillier will lead the charge for SPJ advocacy and fundraising and creating an endowed fund. For more information on how this fund will work and how the money will be used, contact Dave Cuillier.

–        Hosting of a leadership summit with a dozen or so journalism groups including ACES, UNITY, NAHJ, NABJ, ONA, to name a few. Leaders of these organizations met at EIJ to discuss common challenges and synergies and how they can best utilize the strengths of individual member organizations as well as the group collectively. It was an inspiring meeting with a lot of positive discussion and suggestions for moving forward to better support journalists and journalism.

–        The proposal to change the name Society of Professional Journalists to Society for Professional Journalism was ultimately rejected by the delegates. Though the name change didn’t pass, it stimulated a good conversation about the future of SPJ and how we can remain relevant. A Futures Task Force was formed earlier this year by past president John Ensslin, and the task force submitted recommendations to the Executive Committee in June and to the full board last week. Some of the suggestions are already being implemented, and others are being fleshed out for viability, planning and implementation. Stay tuned for more on that!

–        Programs, super sessions and awards, oh my! You can’t talk about EIJ without talking about the great programming, including sessions featuring Michele Norris, SPJ’s newest fellow, Kara Swisher, lessons from Ferguson, narrative storytelling, freelance foul-ups, pushing for parity and more. In addition, EIJ14 held a number of awards ceremonies and honored individual journalists, media organizations, chapters and SPJ leaders. For highlights, visit the EIJ News site.

In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll write more about these topics. In the meantime, visit SPJ.org to stay up-to-day on Society news, watch your inbox for the weekly edition of Leads, and follow SPJ on social media (see SPJ.org’s home page for links). You can also contact me anytime with questions, concerns and ideas. My inbox is always open. Let me know how I can help.

~ Dana Neuts, SPJ President, 2014-2015

 

(Thanks to Jeff Cutler for letting me use this photo taken during the closing business session on Sept. 6, 2014.)

 

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On “fundamental” rights

During a local SPJ discussion about legislation affecting Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act in March, state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) told the gathered journalists that FOI is not a right but a privilege.

Members of the audience objected to Williams’ characterization of FOI laws as a privilege. One young journalist said it disturbed her to hear freedom of information described as a privilege, “when it’s a tool that protects a variety of rights.”

But it seems Williams may have just been presaging the retrograde thinking evident in Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McBurney v. Young, a case that challenged a provision of Virginia’s open-records law that limits access to citizens of that state.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous court, declared Virginia’s citizens-only restriction constitutional. Much of the opinion unfortunately focused on the commercial uses of public data, but it’s the section on the history of public records that offends open-government sensibilities.

Justice Alito and the court show skilled reasoning in noting that, although Virginia’s public-records law denies access to nonresidents, it does allow nonresidents access to its courts and other data in a way that provided most of the documents that had been sought by the two non-Virginian petitioners, Mark McBurney and Roger Hurlbert.

But when Justice Alito’s opinion veers into a peevish recounting of the blighted history of public-records jurisprudence, he and the court show how out of touch with Americans they are.

Does it really matter that “[m]ost founding-era English cases provided that only those persons who had a personal interest in non-judicial records were permitted to access them,” as Justice Alito wrote? Or that 19th century American cases tracked a similar philosophy?

He could just as easily have noted that American law once considered only white male property owners eligible to vote, and been just as relevant.

It’s alarming that Justice Alito asserts repeatedly that access to public records is not a “fundamental” right and that the country was just fine without FOI laws before the 1960s and will be fine without them in the future

Yes, Justice Alito and friends, the federal FOI law is only 47 years old and similar state laws about as recent. Open-government advocates fought hard-won battles to make local, state and federal governments more transparent to the citizens they serve.

Maybe “the Constitution itself is [not] a Freedom of Information Act,” as you wrote, but your opinion in McBurney gives regressive legislators safe cover to start closing access doors that are now open.

Only a half dozen states, including Arkansas, have public records laws that allow agencies to deny out-of-staters access to state and local documents. Let’s hope the number of states limiting access to residents remains at six after this ruling because the ability of Americans to figure out what is going on in their country – not just their state – will be severely diminished..

Without access to public records from many states, the Columbus Dispatch in 2009 could not have demonstrated that excessive secrecy exists at public universities nationwide because of abuse of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Without access to multiple jurisdictions, the Kansas City Star in 1997 might not have revealed lax safety measures nationwide that allowed college athletes to die.

Without access to a broad range of data, ProPublica’s Robin Fields in 2010 would have been hampered in showing wide disparities nationally in dialysis care.

That is scary, particularly at a time when the world is becoming more open. Americans don’t need more bunkering and secrecy. We are one nation, extremely mobile, and information is more portable and important than ever.

If we want to remain a beacon of freedom and justice, of progressive modernism, of advanced thinking, then we need to stand up against thinking that it’s OK to restrict or inhibit access to our governments, no matter where we live.

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Police erasing evidence: Men in black (and blue)

What is up lately with a few of the men (and women) in blue acting like they are the Men in Black?

SPJ is tracking the outcome of an internal affairs investigation in Memphis where a local photojournalist contends police tried to prevent him from taking photos and video of a local businessman being arrested in a case that started with a parking violation.

See the story here, as reported by Memphis television station ABC24.

I sent a letter to the Memphis Police Director earlier this month expressing our deep concerns over the allegations.

What’s more troubling though is that this isn’t the first instance where police have been accused of erasing photographs or video of officers making an arrest.

In Baltimore, there is a case making its way through the courts involving a citizen who made a similar complaint about police deleting video he took of a police encounter with his friend at near a race track in 2010.

The U.S. Justice Department last month intervened in a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Baltimore man and stood up for a citizen’s right to record police actions in public places.

“The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution,” the Justice Department stated“They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our government officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.”

These two incidents are hardly a trend, and in my view, most law enforcement officers are professionals who know better than to destroy images that could be considered private property or perhaps even evidence.

But they remind me of the running gag in “Men in Black,” where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones keep using their flash pen to erase the memory of what an eyewitness has seen.

It’s no laughing matter when a police officer goes beyond simply impounding a camera and takes the extraordinary step of deleting its contents.

Rightly or wrongly, such an action leaves the public with the impression that the officers have something to hide.

We live in a world where so many people have the capability of taking a picture or video with the cell phone in their pocket.

This is good when it comes to breaking news events. For law enforcement, it can also provide valuable evidence when a crime occurs.

We will monitor how the Memphis case turns out. We’ve also offered our help in starting dialogue with police on the First Amendment issues involved.

Whatever comes of  these cases in Baltimore and Memphis, let’s hope this is more an aberration than a trend.

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A Valentine for journalism – ‘This I Know’

Our SPJ colleagues in Colorado have produced a video that I’d like to bring to your attention.

It’s a 60-second valentine to the power of journalism called “This I Know.”

The video was born out of the frustration many of us felt after coming so tantalizing close to passage of a national Shield Law for journalists in late 2010.

But then came Wikileaks and the bipartisan support we had won came unglued. At the end of that debate you might have thought that the whole point of the Shield law was to deal with Julian Assange.

Lost in that debate was the simple fact of the people whom a Shield Law was meant to protect, hard-working journalists whose work shines a light on those dark or unnoticed corners of society. It’s work that vital to the health of a democracy.

So last spring, a group of volunteers set out to remind people of the real beneficiaries of a Shield Law – not just the journalists who produce this valuable work – but the readers, viewers and listeners who depend upon it.

To drive home this point, we assembled a cast of mostly non-journalists. They included a lawyer, a hospice director, a public relations professional, a bartender, a gadfly and a law student.

The only journalist in the bunch was a 16-year-old crusading editor of a high school newspaper.

The one common denominator of the group was their appreciation of the work that journalists do.

Under the direction of my SPJ colleague Cynthia Hessin and the camera work of my friend Jerome Ryden, we gathered one Saturday morning in the Denver studio of Rocky Mountain PBS.

They took turns reading lines that began with the refrain, “Because of a journalist…”

“Because of a journalist…I know who used steroids in baseball.”

“Because of a journalist…I know who covered up the Watergate break-in.”

“Because of a journalist…I know about the torture at Abu Ghraib.”

I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a slick video. The people speaking these lines are clearly not polished actors or spokespeople.

They are just regular folks who happen to believe that the work we do matters.

That’s why I screened this video on the night I took my oath as SPJ president in New Orleans.

That’s also why I’m asking chapter leaders if they would consider screening this video at the start of their next SPJ event or posting it to their chapter website.

Will any of this move us one bit closer to a national Shield Law? Not likely.

But in these tough times, I think it’s important to remind people of the value journalism has to the people who rely upon us for the work we do.

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Around the Web: Highlights of SPJ activities

Like many in SPJ, I have Google Alerts set to deliver links to any stories that mention the Society of Professional Journalists. Here are a few of the more interesting items I’ve come across lately.

First, kudos to the Hofstra chapter of SPJ for hosting a very timely program called “Journalists and Police: Why can’t we just get along?”

Here’s a link to a story and video on the program in the Long Island Report.

I liked the fact that the program provoked discussion between journalists and a representative of a local law enforcement agency.

In light of the recent series of arrests and detention of journalists covering “Occupy” demonstrations, I believe this kind of dialog will be helpful to preventing such incidents going forward.

I also found this New York Times column by Michael Powell. What was especially troubling was the detail on how New York City police used press credentials to cull reporters and photographers from the crowd, removing them to a distance where they could not see what was happening.

A tip of the fedora also to the Middle Tennessee SPJ chapter, for being part of a successful effort to obtain release of court files and help shine a light on an interesting case that had called attention to international adoptions. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has more on the story.

I find there’s a lot to be thankful for in the efforts that individual SPJ chapters are engaged in.

I’m also thankful for some recent good news. For the first time in a long while, our membership numbers are running ahead of last year’s totals.

It’s too soon to call this a trend, but it’s not too soon to do something about it.

Next week, Membership Chairwoman Holly Edgell is organizing an effort to call lapsed members and try to get them to renew. A similar effort proved helpful last year. We call it the Calling Corps.

Holly could always use a few extra volunteers who would be willing to make about five phone calls in this effort. If you would like to help, please contact Holly this week at dateline.belize@gmail.com.

You’ll be making a difference by helping SPJ stay strong so we can continue in the kinds of efforts I’ve highlighted here.

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It was with sadness that I read about the recent death of Robert Estabrook, who joined SPJ in May 1939.

Mr. Estabrook was a former publisher and editor of the Lakeville Journal in Connecticut and a former Washington Post editorial page editor. In 2008, he became part of the Connecticut SPJ Hall of Fame.

Here is a link to a story on the chapter website about his remarkable life and career.

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Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

We’ve had a flurry of incidents lately where SPJ has objected to the unwarranted arrests of journalists at street protests or crime scenes.

-In September, a television photojournalist in Milwaukee was arrested while filming a crime scene from behind a police tape.

-In October, a reporter from an alternative weekly in Nashville was swept up in a wave of several arrests made at an Occupy Nashville demonstration on a public plaza.

-Also in  October, Milwaukee Police arrested a Journal-Sentinel photographer as she took pictures of an officer arresting students who had marched into the streets off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

-On Nov. 1, a photographer for a Richmond, Va. magazine was arrested at an Occupy demonstration.

-On Nov. 6, police in Atlanta arrested two student journalists who were covering an Occupy Atlanta protest.

-And this week, six journalists were detained at Occupy Wall Street in New York City and two at an Occupy demonstration in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The facts and circumstances of these cases vary, but there is one significant common denominator: All the journalists whom police arrested were trying to do their jobs.

I have some empathy for police who are coping with street demonstrations or public protests. My late brother was was a police sergeant in New Jersey. We talked about his job and mine when I was covering the police beat for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 12 years.

Both his experience and mine taught me a respect for police officers and the difficult work they do often under chaotic circumstances.

But reporters also often have to work in chaotic situations, which seemed to be the case in three of the four cases cited here. It’s hard enough covering a street demonstration without the added complication of being subject to arrest.

I’ve covered a few riots, and believe me, they are no fun. I’ve been tear gassed, hit in the shoulder by a fist-sized chunk of ice, and dodged a rock. In one instance, a Denver homicide detective came to my rescue when an angry crowd had formed outside a crime scene.

So while I object to seeing journalists handcuffed and arrested, I understand that in a volatile street protest, police are human and mistakes are made.

And as journalists covering these situations, I think it’s important that we adhere to some common sense guidelines.

First off, stay behind the police tape. Police have a right to create a zone in which they can control access to a crime scene. Respect that space.

What’s so aggravating about the first instance is that the cameraman was filming from the public side of the police tape when he was arrested.

Second, wear your credentials. Make it obvious to anyone who sees you that you are part of the working press.

What’s outrageous about the second Milwaukee arrest is that the photographer very clearly was wearing credentials as well as the kind of camera equipment typically used by a photo-journalist.

A police spokeswoman’s subsequent claim that officers did not realize the photographer was a journalist was incredulous at best.

Likewise, a videotape taken by the Nashville reporter clearly captured him telling officers that he was a journalist. They arrested him anyway.

And finally, don’t blur the distinctions between observer and the observed. I know sometimes we like to take the “fly on the wall” approach and not call attention to ourselves. But a street protest is not that kind of situation.

Would any of these steps have prevented any of these arrests? No, because in all these instances the journalists did what they were supposed to do and got arrested anyway.

But taking these steps helps us bolster our case when we protest the arrest of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.

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SPJ committees at work: The year ahead

This post is an expanded version of my forthcoming first column for Quill (for the Nov/Dec issue). Think of this as a roadmap for the year ahead and a lineup of who is doing what.

It’s a bit long, but it will give you a good idea of the scope and breadth of the work SPJ has taken on this year.

The unsung heroes of our Society are the volunteers who log countless hours working on various national committees.

As your new president, I’ve been blessed to inherit a very strong set of committees. I’ve added some people and created some new committees, but for the most part there’s a fair number of folks who agreed to continue on this year.

In my view, committees are working laboratories where SPJ policies are drafted and vetted. I’ve tasked these folks with testing out several new initiatives. Here are brief descriptions of some of the assignments they are working on.

– The Programming Committee, chaired by Jeremy Steele, is a new panel aimed at helping professional and student chapters increase the level of SPJ activities. One project they are working on is to create a “speakers’ bureau” of various experts within SPJ who would be willing to travel at minimal cost to talk to chapters across the country.

As part of the programming committee, Holly Fisher will continue to produce chapter-hosted programs for Studio SPJ.

– The expanded Membership Committee, chaired by Holly Edgell, will be forming a team of volunteers to reach out to lapsed members to encourage them to re-up. The group is also working on coordinating a month-long national membership drive in March 2012. They are also studying the feasibility of creating an institutional membership for news organizations.

-This year Membership also has a new subcommittee chaired by Tara Puckey. This group will focus their efforts on building collegiate membership.

– The Ethics Committee, chaired by Kevin Smith, plans to begin the long and deliberate process of reviewing our Code of Ethics for possible revisions in the light of the challenges posed by a digital age. The committee also hopes to author some position papers on topics such as political coverage, checkbook journalism, plagiarism, etc.

-The Diversity Committee, chaired by Curtis Lawrence, is at work on reviving the Rainbow Source Book, working to strengthen ties with other journalism organizations and partnering with chapters and other journalism groups to monitor content and hiring in media.

– The Freedom of Information Committee, chaired by Linda Petersen, will be working on an encore production of the highly popular “Access Across America Tour” that Secretary-Treasurer Dave Cuillier created two years ago. This year, we’re hoping to have more than one trainer making regional tours to newsrooms and chapters across the nation.

The FOI Committee also is doing an update on prison media access, and for Sunshine Week they will be surveying Washington, D.C.-area reporters on their relationship with federal government PIOs to gain insight into source relationships and the role that public relations professionals play in the free flow of information between government and the media.

– The Government Relations Committee, chaired by Al Cross, will work with SPJ leaders and the FOI Committee to advocate for open government at all levels from localities to Washington, D.C. One special emphasis will be fighting efforts to repeal or curtail public notice advertising by state and local government.

Government Relations also will be working closely with the FOI Committee. Al and Linda will each serve as members of the other committee.

– The Communications Committee, chaired by Lauren Bartlett, is working on a strategic communications plan aimed at creating unified messaging and ideas for key initiatives on our core missions. The committee also is working on a plan to position SPJ national leaders as experts on various media topics.

-Lauren also is chairing a subcommittee whose purpose will be to produce a white paper on where our industry is headed and that will list some innovative best practices by media organizations.

– The International Journalism Committee, chaired by Ricardo Sandoval Palos,  is evaluating what our policy should be when individuals or groups of journalists apply to join SPJ or to start their own chapter, as a group of journalism students in Qatar did two years ago.

– The Awards Committee, chaired by Ginny Frizzi, is weighing whether it would make sense to honor some of our recently deceased SPJ leaders by naming some of our awards after them.

– The Freelance Committee’s special project this year will be to develop a freelancers’ resource guide. Dana Neuts chairs this group.

-The Legal Defense Fund, chaired by Hagit Limor, will continue assisting journalists by funding court battles for their First Amendment rights while working with staff to explore new options for fundraising.

– The Professional Development Committee, chaired by Deb Wenger, will continue producing online tutorials for our members and will try this year to offer some webinars.

-The Journalism Education Committee, chaired by Rebecca Talent,  is looking at ways to support high school journalism programs that are facing elimination because of budget cuts. The committee also is sharing syllabi and best practices with new faculty and encouraging more minority applicants for the Mark of Excellence awards.

– The Digital Media Committee, chaired by Jennifer Peebles, will be working on a special project aimed at creating an interactive digital timeline that will allow visitors to our website to explore SPJ’s rich, 103-year history.

-The GenJ Committee, chaired by Lynn Walsh, is continuing to blog on its excellent site on the SPJ blogs network. They are also trying to come up with a more contemporary and less retro name for the “Liner Notes” blog.

-I have also appointed a special committee, chaired by past president Irwin Gratz, to study whether it’s feasible and desirable to create virtual chapters or affinity groups that would consist of members who share a common professional interest, such as freelancing or a specialty beat like religion or court reporting.

– And last but not least, I’ve asked Mike Koretzky to lead a “Blue Sky” Committee. I’ve asked this group if we had $10,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, how could we best spend it? There’s no money in the budget for this, but let’s first see what this panel recommends.

Will all of these initiatives be adopted? Not necessarily. Where there are policy questions involved, the SPJ board of directors will ultimately decide.

But thanks to the efforts of all these volunteers, I feel like our SPJ year is off to a good start.

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Nobody asked me but…updates from the president

Nobody asked me but*…Honesty still seems like the best policy.

That’s something U.S. Department of Justice officials ought to keep in mind while evaluating a new policy proposal that would enable agency spokespeople to be less than honest in answering inquiries about the existence of public records in national security matters.

I understand there are some things that a government needs to keep secret when it comes to national security.

But the Justice Department has the ability to classify documents as secret and deny access. What it does not need is the ability to depart from the truth when a reporter simply asks if a document exists.

Our Freedom of Information Committee is drafting a response to this proposed policy. I was glad to see Utah Sen. Mike Lee weigh in on it as well.

Bad Doc Databank Update

Along with representatives from several journalism groups, I took part last week in a conference call with senior officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

We were doing our best to convince them to restore the public use file of the National Practitioners Databank file, which keeps track of malpractice and disciplinary cases involving physicians.

The physicians are not identified in the databank, but by using other public files, reporters in several cities have been able to write highly useful public service stories about cases involving doctors in their area.

That is until recently when the agency shut down the public use file. Along with several other groups, SPJ has been urging HHS officials to restore the public file.

We made what I thought was a very strong and cogent case in the conference call. I wished it were possible to tell you that we changed the government’s position in this matter. That remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

Help for Endangered Advisers

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, once quipped that there are two occupations in America that are more dangerous the better you are at them: suicide bomber and student journalism adviser.

With that peril in mind, the SPLC recently set up a new blog called FACT (Fired Adviser Comfort Team.) It has a kind of edgy, kind of gallows sense of humor about a very serious problem: censorship of student media. Check it out.

It will make you appreciate the often difficult position that student media advisers undertake every working day. If you know of someone who is experiencing similar difficulty, pass along the link.

A Tip of the Fedora

Kudos to longtime SPJ member David McHam, who was honored at Baylor University recently with the first ever Legacy in Journalism Education Award.

Also a shout out to my friends in our Rio Grande SPJ chapter for continuing the conversation on the language we use in immigration stories by co-sponsoring a discussion at the University of New Mexico.

And here’s one of the more creative ways I’ve ever seen of a chapter keeping track of its meeting minutes. The SPJ chapter at my alma mater, Columbia University, posted a video with their singing minutes. These guys look like they are having fun.

A Sad Note

SPJ notes with sorrow the death of Josephine Varnier Stone, an aspiring journalist who died recently after she was hit by a motor vehicle in Richmond, Va.

Josephine was one of the the student journalists on our Working Press team at the 2009 SPJ National Convention in Indianapolis. Read more about her.

Our deepest condolences to her family and friends.

Call for Volunteers

A group of volunteers assembled by the Membership Committee will be making calls soon to lapsed members in the hope of convincing them to re-up. This valuable effort helped us retain members when we first tried it last year.

We could always use a few more people willing to make phone calls. I’m going to be making calls. If you would like to join us in this effort, please contact membership chair Holly Edgell at dateline.belize@gmail.com.

*The title of this blog is a nod to Jimmy Cannon, one of my favorite sportswriters when I was growing up in New York City.

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National Practitioner Data Bank restricted: How you can help

Imagine, God forbid, that you were to undergo brain surgery in the near future.

Wouldn’t you want to know if your surgeon had been a defendant in multiple malpractice lawsuits in more than one state?

Of course you would. And thanks to some intrepid reporters who dug through public records, readers in several U.S. cities were able to make informed decisions as to their choice of physician.

But that kind of skillful reporting – the sort of work journalists should be doing in every city – is at risk today because of the federal government’s recent decision to retract and disable a valuable public use file of a national data bank.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a confidential system that the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration uses to track malpractice settlements and disciplinary actions against doctors and other health care professionals.

For years, the HRSA also has made available a public file in which the identities of the providers were scrubbed but the data on the malpractice outcomes and disciplinary cases were available.

By comparing the anonymous data in the public file against other existing public records, reporters in Minnesota, Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia have been able to report stories exposing serious gaps in the monitoring of these cases.

The Association of Health Care Journalists has tracked this issue closely and has some examples of these stories plus comments from reporters on how they used the data bank’s public file.

Evidently, these stories have produced a backlash from those who would prefer the public be kept in the dark on such matters. On Sept. 1, the HRSA shut down the public use file of the data bank that previously had been posted on its website.

It gets worse.

The agency also sent a letter to Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley, threatening him with an $11,000 civil fine if his paper published a story that used confidential information from the data bank.

The Star – rightfully – went ahead and published the story based upon Bavley’s use of the public portion of the data bank’s public file and other available public documents.

The threatened fine is particularly galling. When I travelled to Cambodia to train journalists there a few years ago, one of the more outrageous tactics of the country’s regime was to levy huge fines on journalists who wrote things the government did not like.

My Cambodian friends – who admire and view our First Amendment protections as a model of the way a free press ought to be – would be dismayed to read of a U.S. official here “going Cambodian” on a journalist whose work was based upon public records.

SPJ joined other journalism groups – led by AHCJ – to protest this expansion of secrecy regarding the data bank and express concern about the threatened fine.

So far, our protest has not resulted in the restoration of the data bank’s public use file.

In a Sept. 21 letter, an HRSA official informed us that the agency is “reconfiguring” its formerly public file to make it more difficult for anyone to use the data to identify any health care practitioner.

As the Simon and Garfunkel song goes, “Hello, darkness, my old friend.”

But there is hope. Our campaign has found some interesting allies.

One is a former HRSA administrator whose job formerly included  overseeing the data bank’s public use file.

Robert Oshel was an associate director at HRSA, where he worked from 1987 until his retirement in 2008. Among his duties was to design the data bank’s public use file and oversee its quarterly updates.

In a letter to AHCJ, Oshel wrote that the current administration, “in erroneously interpreting the law,” took the data bank’s public file offline.

Our fight also drew support last week from U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who wrote a letter to HRSA officials criticizing the removal of the public use file of the data bank.

“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system – particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” Grassley wrote. “More transparency serves the public interest.”

Where this dispute is heading is hard to say. What is clear is that AHCJ, SPJ and our other journalism colleagues will keep up the pressure to restore the data bank’s public use file.

What can you do? Well, for starters HRSA has scheduled a conference call to discuss the data bank’s public use at 1 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 13. Here’s a link to the conference call info.

Here also is a timeline on this issue.

Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Heath Care Journalists, has asked that as many journalists as possible dial into the conference. I intend to do so. I hope you will, too.

 

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