FOI A to Z
Welcome to “FOI A to Z.”
The following alphabetical list of specific subjects applicable to FOI laws should be considered an FOI “story tip sheet.” We don’t claim this as a comprehensive resource or “the last word” on story ideas. But sometimes, journalists just need an idea, and this section has plenty of those.
The list is arranged by subject and includes briefs on the usefulness of the information, the general availability of it and, in many cases, specific story ideas that either have been done or can be done. Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. provided access to its vast resource of story abstracts, many of which are listed in this section of “Open Doors,” and Charles Davis of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri helped prepare this information.
APPEALS OF GOVERNMENT AGENCY DECISIONS
USES: To determine who is objecting to government decisions, especially regarding land use; to identify and evaluate specific objections; to evaluate effectiveness of appeals.
AVAILABILITY: Available at federal, state and local agency offices, local government boards.
NOTES: From U.S. Forest Service timber sales to local sewer projects, having access to appeals and protests can offer insight into who objects to the project, what the specific objections are and whether they have any impact on the project’s final status or design.
STORY EXAMPLE: Catalogue the total number of appeals filed over timber sales on a given National Forest in a given year. How many were upheld? How many overturned? How many appeals resulted in lawsuits against the agency? Who filed appeals? What was the cost to the agency of processing appeals?
USES: To determine who is in government custody at any given time; to verify the arrest of specific persons in connection with specific events.
AVAILABILITY: Should be available at local law enforcement offices or jails.
NOTES: In other countries, people have been arrested by authorities and have simply disappeared. In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Justice has detained hundreds of people for questioning without releasing their names or whereabouts. The Department has said it did not want to violate the detainees’ privacy.
AUTOPSY REPORTS AND RECORDS (INCLUDING CORONERS REPORTS)
USES: To confirm the cause of death or the circumstances surrounding a person’s death; to evaluate the accuracy and quality of work by coroners and medical examiners.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Recent efforts in Florida and Indiana have made autopsy photographs unavailable, except by order of a judge. The issue also has surfaced in Maryland’s legislature and may show up in other states as well.
NOTES: What does your state’s law say about autopsy reports? Have there been any high-profile cases where autopsy reports have been questioned? The battle over autopsy photos of race car driver Dale Earnhardt was easily the most controversial FOI story of 2001. However, the Orlando Sentinel successfully gained access to the photos so an independent expert could evaluate the autopsy report and make an independent determination as to what killed Earnhardt.
STORY EXAMPLE: In April 1994, The Arizona Republic reported that law enforcement authorities conducted a superficial examination into the death of a pregnant woman on her 10th wedding anniversary. The police failed to look for evidence on the cliff from which the woman fell and failed to properly question her husband, who had an extramarital affair, and they did not attempt to determine a connection between the husband’s affair and a 10-day-old $200,000 insurance policy on the woman’s life. (IRE Story File #10848)
USES: To determine the condition and viability of banks and other financial institutions. Also to determine status of government involvement with private banks.
AVAILABILITY: Although there are variations by state, most reports on the condition of banks are considered confidential. Records of bank customers also are confidential. However, the banking records of government entities should be open.
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1998, the San Francisco Weekly reported on alleged wrongdoing by Bank of America in its management of city bond funds. (IRE Story File #15840)
BROADCASTERS (PUBLIC FILES)
USES: To determine whether broadcast stations are meeting Federal Communications Commission regulations and community needs. Also to determine availability, rates and purchases of political advertising on broadcast stations.
AVAILABILITY: A licensed broadcast station’s public file should be available to anyone during normal business hours.
NOTES: Although FCC requirements of stations have decreased substantially over the years, stations still must make an effort to respond to community needs through its programming and public outreach. Of particular interest to the FCC are efforts to provide children’s programming. Records of technical inspections by the FCC also should be available.
STORY EXAMPLE: What’s in your local stations’ public files? Are they accessible as required? What do they indicate regarding the station’s commitment to the community? What kinds of letters from viewers are on file?
USES: To monitor government revenue collection and spending at all levels.
AVAILABILITY: Budget documents should be available in both draft and final forms at any level of government. The process government entities use to discuss and approve budgets also should be open to the public.
NOTES: Annual budget stories, public hearings and the decision-making process should be a staple of local news coverage.
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1999, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the role of traffic fines in the town budget of Pine Lakes, Ga. The story found that from 1989 to 1998, Pine Lakes collected an average of 57 percent of its revenue from traffic fines. The city tripled the size of its police force from three officers to 10 and more than quadrupled its revenue from fines. Three-quarters of its $1.13 million budget came from traffic tickets. (IRE Story File #15458)
USES: To monitor government oversight of regulated businesses. Also to determine the status of business licenses or incorporated entities.
AVAILABILITY: Local business licenses, state charters or articles of incorporation required by state or local governments all should be publicly available. Regulatory records may be confidential, depending on exemptions to state open records laws. Check with your local city, town or county clerk about availability. At the state level, check with the secretary of state’s office, commerce department or business licensing agency.
STORY EXAMPLE: The Plain Dealer looked at a six-square-mile Cleveland area that had been promised about $90 million from the federal Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community program, created by the Clinton administration in 1993. A Plain Dealer review of decades of census data, recent vital statistics, property records, deeds and business records showed the severity of the damage done to the neighborhoods when jobs, businesses and social programs left. (IRE Story File #12161)
CAMERAS IN THE COURTS
USES: Cameras and other video and audio recording devices help journalists fully report trials and other courtroom actions. Rules that allow still cameras, video cameras and audio recorders (even live television or online coverage) help the public understand the American legal system. At the least, they can remove some of the mystery surrounding courts and, at most, can provide citizens with a valuable civics lesson in the justice system.
AVAILABILITY: Varies greatly from state to state. With the addition of Supreme Court coverage in Mississippi and South Dakota in 2001, all 50 states offer at least some visual coverage of their court systems. Several organizations maintain databases of state rules regarding cameras in courtrooms.
Cameras still are prohibited in federal courts at all levels except in unusual circumstances such as naturalization ceremonies in which a judge invites cameras into the courtroom.
NOTES: At the state level, the Supreme Court most likely sets the rules for allowing cameras in courts, although each individual judge has the ultimate discretion. At the federal level, there have been repeated attempts to grant judges the ability to allow cameras in their courtrooms. However, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Judicial Conference remain opposed to cameras in federal courts.
STORY EXAMPLE: Stories should be done whenever a judge deviates from the established rules regarding cameras in courtrooms. Stories also should note any change in rules or policies that lean toward more acceptance of cameras.
CAMPUS CRIME AND DISCIPLINARY RECORDS
USES: To monitor the amount of serious crime on campuses that is not reported in local government records. Also to monitor the types of discipline imposed by colleges or universities on students who commit crimes.
AVAILABILITY: Campus crime information is governed by federal law, namely the Clery Act and the Family Education Records Privacy Act (FERPA.) Relatively new rules created by the Department of Education allow more information to be available through campus safety agencies.
NOTES: The issue of campus crime has become more prominent in the last 10 years, especially following the deaths of students on campus. The roadblock to making more campus crime information public has been federal law on student privacy.
STORY EXAMPLE: A five-month investigation by the Sacramento Bee found that “reports of rapes and sexual assaults at University of California campuses are seldom made public each year despite a decade-old federal law created to force colleges to do so.” Bee reporters found that several UC campuses violated the federal campus crime reporting law, called the Clery Act. “The result: annual crime reports provided to students and parents that create a misleading portrayal of safety at UC campuses.” While the nine UC campuses reported 60 forcible sex offenses in 1998, including rapes, the Bee discovered “at least 190 cases of rape and forcible sex offenses...The figure is by no means comprehensive.” UC Irvine and UC Riverside sidestepped the more stringent reporting requirements of the Clery Act by using FBI statistics. (IRE Story File #17749)
USES: Data from the U.S. Census, conducted every 10 years, can help illustrate trends in population, demographics and business in local communities, states and the country as a whole.
AVAILABILITY: Census data is available through the U.S. Census Bureau and through state agencies (commerce departments, for example) that act as clearinghouses for state data.
STORY EXAMPLE: Census data can be the bases for stories on changes in your community or state’s population, migration trends, or increases or decreases in types of businesses.
USES: Computerized (electronic) records can assist news organizations in analyzing large amounts of government data.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Issues surrounding availability include the format the records are kept in, whether confidential information can be removed (redacted) easily from the records, and whether an agency must create new files or new programs in order to meet the records request.
NOTES: Government agencies often try to charge exorbitant amounts of money for databases or other large amounts of computerized records. Some states allow this by statute. Any request for computerized records should take the issue of cost into account. Some government agencies also contract with private sector businesses to store or maintain computerized records. This can be troublesome for public records requests. If the business puts the government data in new form, the business may claim ownership of the new form, making it exempt from public access law.
CONTRACTS (INCLUDING PROPOSALS AND BIDS)
USES: The ability to examine government contracts with the private sector can assist journalists in monitoring government spending and the role of private sector individuals and businesses in government activities.
AVAILABILITY: In most cases, government contracts with the private sector should be available. Exceptions include contracts for national defense or security or other areas specifically exempted by statute or administrative rule.
USES: To monitor the administration of justice.
AVAILABILITY: In almost all instances, court records are open to inspection, unless a judge specifically has sealed them or they fall into a class of records exempted by statute. This is true of criminal and civil court records at all levels, in courts ranging from municipal and Justice of the Peace courts to state and federal courts.
STORY EXAMPLE: Court coverage is a staple of virtually all American news media, from the prosecution of routine crimes to major criminal cases to civil suits.
USES: To verify or explain causes of death, especially in high-profile cases or in cases where the cause of death is in itself a story. Death certificates also have been used as the basis of investigations into improper conduct by coroners or medical examiners.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Some states may consider death certificates confidential, even though it’s a generally accepted legal concept that the dead have no rights to privacy.
USES: Divorce records can be used to illustrate societal trends or to illustrate how courts (and judges) treat men and women in divorce cases. In some cases, information on an individual couple’s divorce may be newsworthy because of the couple’s prominence in the community, in government or in a particular circle. (The divorce of a leading family values advocate, for instance, might be newsworthy.)
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state as to the degree of information available. Divorce, like marriage, is a government-sanctioned activity. Therefore, the fact that a married couple has petitioned a court for a divorce should be a matter of public record. Some states may consider divorce information part of “vital statistics” and grant a high degree of confidentiality. Specific information from a divorce case – alimony, child support, division of assets – may be considered confidential by statute or by order of a judge.
USES: To monitor progress of ongoing government studies or reports; to learn about pending government actions.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. In general, “drafts” refer to government documents that have not been made final. A draft report, for example, that is prepared by state employees but still must be approved by superiors, a government body or by the public. Some documents, like environmental impact statements, include a “draft” version as part of the public review process. Those drafts are specifically available to the public. Other draft documents may be intended only for use within a government agency. In general, “draft” documents should be available to the same degree that “final” documents are available.
NOTES: Legislative bill drafts are not universally available, although they can be useful in anticipating actual legislation and in understanding what interests are behind legislative proposals.
DRIVING RECORDS (INCLUDING VIOLATIONS AND ARRESTS)
USES: To assess the automobile safety record of an individual driver or a group of drivers. Driver license records also were once widely used to obtain personal information about individuals. Recent federal laws now prohibit the release of personal information from driver records.
AVAILABILITY: Records of driving violations, license suspensions and revocations are available in every state under the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act. Personal information is severely restricted to certain identified groups, including law enforcement, private investigators and employers. Except in rare instances, journalists and the general public do not have access to the personal information.
NOTES: In some states, journalists may be allowed to see personal information in driver records for “research purposes” only. The federal law on driver privacy includes harsh penalties for publishing the personal information obtained in driver records.
STORY EXAMPLE: The Houston Chronicle analyzed Texas driving records and found that minorities disproportionately received traffic tickets, particularly in small white enclaves and major urban areas. In addition, the newspaper had a dispute with the state Department of Public Safety, which wanted to charge $60 million for access to records. (IRE Story File #15585)
USES: To provide greater access to government information, by allowing information to be transmitted electronically through computers.
AVAILABILITY: The 1996 Electronic Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) provide that information stored electronically by the federal Executive Branch is available under provisions of the FOIA. In addition, the 1996 law ordered federal agencies to create Internet sites so citizens could access information without having to file FOIA requests on paper. As a result, a wide range of government information is available through agency Web sites. FOIA requests also can be made electronically.
NOTES: The requirements of E-FOIA have not been universally followed by federal agencies. In 2000, the federal watchdog group OMB Watch published a report which showed many federal agencies had not met the law’s requirements. In addition, some government Web sites have been removed from the Internet because of concerns that terrorists could access sensitive information. In an unrelated instance, many Department of Interior Web sites have been removed because of a federal court case over Bureau of Indian Affairs mis-management of Indian trust assets.
ELECTION RECORDS (INCLUDES CAMPAIGN FINANCE RECORDS)
USES: To determine the honesty, fairness and accuracy of elections; to determine a candidate’s financial support and identify political donors.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state.
STORY EXAMPLE: Stories on campaign contributions have become staples of political coverage. Sometimes, journalists’ investigations of election results have led to significant change. A Miami Herald investigation into the Miami mayor’s election in 1997 resulted in the overturning of the election. Coverage of the 2000 presidential election and recounts in Florida made international news, even if the results of media investigations were inconclusive.
ENFORCEMENT OF PUBLIC ACCESS LAWS
USES: To ensure that government agencies and employees follow the law.
AVAILABILITY: Enforcement provisions of public access laws, where they exist, are publicly available through state statute.
NOTES: FOI advocates routinely complain that the penalties for violating public access law are virtually non-existent, while penalties for violating individual privacy can be harsh.
STORY EXAMPLE: Have public officials ever been disciplined for failing to provide public information or for illegally closing a proceeding? Has your city, state or county been sued recently for a public access violation? Do courts in your state award court costs to successful plaintiffs? If so, how much have government entities been forced to pay?
EXPENSE RECORDS (ALSO SEE FINANCIAL RECORDS)
USES: To monitor government spending and to ensure the honesty of those in charge of government money.
AVAILABILITY: Government expense records should be available except in cases of national defense and security or other areas specifically exempted by law.
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1989, the Austin American-Statesman discovered the state Parks and Wildlife Department stocking private land in exchange for implied future political favors. The reporters used expense records and stocking reports extensively. (IRE Story File #6612)
FEES FOR COPYING, GATHERING AND SEARCHING
USES: Informing the public about the fees government charges for duplication of records is a public service. Journalists and other FOI advocates should keep a close eye on government access fees to ensure that government records are affordable for the general public.
AVAILABILITY: Government fee schedules should be available either through statute, administrative rule, or agency policy.
NOTES: FOI advocates believe that, in most cases, government records should be duplicated at no cost to citizens. If government has legitimate costs in producing some records, fees should cover only those costs and not be used to pay for equipment or employee salaries.
FINANCIAL RECORDS OF GOVERNMENT AGENCIES
USES: To monitor government spending and to ensure the honesty of those in charge of government money.
AVAILABILITY: Financial records of government agencies should be available except in cases of national defense and security or other areas specifically exempted by law.
NOTES: With more government data being stored on computer, any assessment of government records may require negotiations with the agency over how the data will be accessed and in what format it will be delivered. Agencies may attempt to charge large fees for computer programming, personnel time or equipment.
STORY EXAMPLE: A 1999 examination by the San Francisco Examiner of city government financial records found the city’s budget had grown by a billion dollars under Mayor Willie Brown. The paper found thousands of workers added to the city’s payroll, employee overtime costs spiraling and former colleagues of the mayor landing highly paid city jobs. (IRE Story File #16214)
USES: To hold governments accountable for putting open records laws into practice.
AVAILABILITY: At the federal level, every Executive Branch agency or department must make available an annual FOI report that includes information on the number of requests it received, the number processed, the average time of processing and the average cost of fulfilling a request. These reports are available online through both the individual agency and the federal Justice Department’s FOIA Web site.
NOTES: At the federal, state and local level, government entities covered by open records laws must be monitored to ensure they have implemented the laws that cover them.
STORY EXAMPLE: Choose an agency that has authority over an issue that’s important in your coverage area. Then study its most recent annual FOIA report and do a story on its FOIA performance.
GOVERNORS (SCHEDULES, STAFF, EXPENSES, TRAVEL)
USES: To monitor the activity, travels and staff of a governor.
AVAILABILITY: It should be a bedrock principle of state FOI law that the names, job descriptions and salaries of all paid staff of a governor should be available to the media and public. In addition, the governor’s schedule should be available. In most cases, meetings with other government officials should be open, although meetings with private sector individuals may not be. (Check your state law on open meetings to understand under what circumstance a meeting may be closed.) The governor’s travel budget also should be available (See “Budgets.”)
NOTES: Information on a governor’s travels can be newsworthy, especially if questions arise over the appropriateness of specific trips. Does your governor accept private sector-sponsored trips? For what purposes? Are trips that are clearly political separated from official business?
STORY EXAMPLE: WSMT-TV’s “investigation found the governor of Tennessee and his family had taken more than 50 free flights on corporately owned jets over a three-year period. These flights include a trip to a Puerto Rico resort, a trip to a golf resort in California, vacation travel to Wyoming and frequent transportation to the governor’s vacation home in Florida. Companies with large state contracts donated many of the trips. The governor also spent hours in the company of lobbyists, including one lobbyist from U.S. Tobacco and another from a nursing home chain coming under scrutiny from state regulators. None of the governor’s trips were ever publicly disclosed.” (IRE Story File #17519)
“GOVERNMENT IN THE SUNSHINE ACT” (GITSA)
USES: To guarantee that decisions made by “collegial” bodies of the federal government are made in public.
AVAILABILITY: Any gathering of federal commissions or other statutory “collegial” bodies should be open to the media and public.
NOTES: Several years ago, a proposal was made by Securities and Exchange Commission member Steven Wallman that the GITSA be interpreted as exempting internal discussions that did not entail actual decision-making. Wallman asserted that closed-door sessions would lead to more full and frank discussions of issues and better decisions. SPJ was one of the leading opponents of the proposal, arguing that public meetings would become mere pro forma acceptances of decisions that already had been made in private, thus excluding the public from the actual decision-making process. The proposal did not go forward.
HEALTH INSPECTIONS (ALSO SEE “X-RAYS”)
USES: To ensure the public is protected from unsanitary or unsafe conditions at restaurants and other food vendors.
AVAILABILITY: These records should be available unless a specific state law or local ordinance makes them confidential.
NOTES: Many newspapers and television stations have done stories on how individual restaurants fared on their inspections. In addition, if a public health problem can be traced to a particular place of business, public health inspection records can shed light on the past health and safety record of that business.
STORY EXAMPLE: The New York Post’s computer analysis of health inspection records revealed that a third of New York City public schools maintained filthy, vermin-infested cafeterias, putting some 1.1 million school children at risk. The story “also exposed toothless health regulations: Although the city Department of Health routinely inspects school kitchens and cafeterias, an unwritten policy ensures the Board of Education is never cited for violations.” (IRE Story File #16095)
HIGHER EDUCATION (COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES)
USES: Financial and budget records can illustrate the financial condition of institutions of higher education. Campus crime records can point out safety concerns on campus. Decisions made by student government bodies or faculty leadership groups should be made in open meetings in most cases.
AVAILABILITY: Financial records should be open, unless state law treats higher education differently than other areas of government. Campus crime and disciplinary records are subject to federal law on student privacy but have been made more available in recent years. (See “Campus Crime & Disciplinary Reports.) Student government records also should be available. Meetings of boards of regents, faculty leadership groups and student government bodies should be open, although issues of personnel may be closed under laws protecting individual privacy.
NOTES: In February 2002, a reporter for the Montana Capitol Bureau of The Associated Press was ordered to leave a meeting of university system presidents and the state commissioner of higher education. The meeting was held in the commissioner’s office and had been called to discuss several significant policy issues in advance of a Board of Regents meeting. The university officials argued that the meeting was not subject to the state’s open meetings law because the officials did not constitute a decision-making body. The reporter refused to leave and the meeting was canceled. The AP is pursuing a lawsuit to clarify whether Montana’s law on open meetings should apply in this instance.
USES: To monitor spending on publicly-funded transportation projects and identify the contractors who win projects.
AVAILABILITY: The awarding of contracts by government agencies should be a public process. The amounts of contracts and information about unsuccessful bids and bidders should be available.
USES: To illustrate safety concerns on particular highways or trends in highway accidents over time or across a particular area or region.
AVAILABILITY: Information on highway accidents should be available. Individual states usually compile annual statistics for the federal government and make those reports available to the media and public.
STORY EXAMPLE: Does one stretch of highway (or city thoroughfare) have a bad reputation for accidents? Have there been frequent accidents in one spot recently? Check the state’s records to see how that highway or location compares with others in your area or in the state. Statistics on the role of seat belts, alcohol, excessive speed or other factors in serious or fatal accidents also can illustrate issues of social concern.
USES: To monitor the financial condition and operation of non-profit or public hospitals.
AVAILABILITY: Publicly-funded hospitals should be subject to state open records and meetings laws unless specifically exempted. Non-profit hospitals can be monitored through tax returns (Form 990-See “Internal Revenue Service.”)
NOTES: Hospital partnerships between public entities and private enterprises can create problems with accessing records or meetings. The private partner may claim a privilege of confidentiality. Check your state’s law to see if such partnerships are exempted.
INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE RECORDS
USES: To monitor the finances of nonprofit organizations. To understand agreements between the IRS and certain classes of taxpayers. To assess the operations, accuracy and fairness of the IRS.
AVAILABILITY: Individual or corporate tax returns are confidential. However, the federal tax returns of nonprofit organizations are available for public inspection. These returns, known as form 990 returns, must be filed by organizations ranging from community charities to trade groups to hospitals to large co-operative industries.
In addition, the IRS sometimes makes agreements with certain classes of taxpayers identifying what will be considered taxable income. Those agreements are considered public record, although the returns of for-profit businesses covered by the agreements are not.
NOTES: In recent years, the IRS has asked Congress to make tax agreements confidential. Organizations such as Tax Analysts and the Bureau of National Affairs have argued against such changes. SPJ has assisted them in those efforts. IRS watchdogs also have noted attempts (so far unsuccessful) to exempt IRS records from FOIA.
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1990, Money magazine laid bare inefficiencies and inherent unfairness at the Internal Revenue Service. Among its findings: half of the 36 million notices it sends out annually demanding money are wrong; the IRS routinely uses unfair methods in dealing with taxpayers; it is the only agency where the accused is considered guilty until proven innocent. The article included sample letters to the IRS. (IRE Story File #7318)
USES: To monitor who is in jail at any particular time. To monitor jail operations.
AVAILABILITY: City, municipal or county jail rosters should be available, as should booking records. Privately-run jails that contract with local governments may not be covered by state law on open records.
NOTES: Local jail records can illustrate stories on over-crowding, the demographics of jail populations, trends about crimes, or concerns about the separation of adults and children or men and women.
STORY EXAMPLE: The Jail House Doc “focused on the highest paid Dallas County employee, a gynecologist who works in the jail. Only 10 percent of the inmates are women, yet this doctor made $200,000 a year, nearly double the salary of the physician who is in charge of the entire jail population. As it turns out this doctor is personal friends with the director of the Dallas County Health Department.” (IRE Story File #17593)
JUSTICE (SEE COURT RECORDS, LAW ENFORCEMENT)
KILLING (INCLUDING MURDER AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT)
USES: To illustrate issues surrounding the crime of murder and a state’s policies regarding capital punishment.
AVAILABILITY: Statistics on murder (and other serious felony crimes) are available either through local law enforcement agencies or a state justice department’s criminal statistics office.
The frequency and numbers of executions are easily available through state corrections departments and watchdog groups. The availability of state policies and procedures on capital punishment varies by state. Some specifics on procedures may be considered confidential for security reasons.
NOTES: In 2000, SPJ compiled a 50-state list (including the District of Columbia and the federal prison system) of state policies regarding prisons and prisoners, including the availability of capital punishment information. The information is available online at www.spj.org.
STORY EXAMPLE: This IRE story file contains the results of five years of coverage reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune on the convictions in a cop killing trial. “Even as gang members were being sentenced for killing a police officer, Hasemyer and Cantlupe were raising questions about how authorities won those convictions...Their 1994 articles, “Pursuit of Justice,” suggested the case against the gang members was marred by the questionable conduct of authorities who rushed to justice at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed rights to a fair trial. In March 1997 they revealed prosecutors gave extraordinary privileges to the key informant and witness against the convicted gang members. In a June 1997 series, “An Informant’s Story,” Cantlupe and Hasemyer went on to explain the significance of the informant’s role in convicting the gang members three years earlier. In March 1998, ‘Secret Allies,’ a series that revealed that in their zeal to fight crime, police and prosecutors not only bent, broke and ignored their own policies but also broke the law.” (IRE Story File #15773)
LABOR NEGOTIATIONS (COLLECTIVE BARGAINING)
USES: To monitor government’s expenditures on personnel represented by organized labor.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Some states specifically exempt collective bargaining information from open records and meetings laws. However, others may allow the public to observe the collective bargaining deliberations of public entities such as school boards, city councils or county commissions. Deliberations and decisions by state legislatures on public employee pay scales should be public.
NOTES: In the private sector, neither management nor labor has any obligation to make public its proposals for collective bargaining, even if one side or the other chooses to do so. However, since public entities spend public money in collective bargaining agreements, there is rationale that their proposals should be public, even if labor chooses not to make its proposals public.
USES: To monitor the activities of police, sheriff’s officers, highway patrol or other law enforcement agencies.
AVAILABILITY: Initial reports to law enforcement agencies should be available under state law. This may include tapes of incoming calls to 9-1-1 centers. Investigative reports by police generally are considered confidential, at least while cases are considered active. In some cases, law enforcement may try to seal closed case files because of information contained in them.
NOTES: It is not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to withhold even routine “initial report” information to punish local media over perceived slights or unflattering coverage. Journalists should actively pursue access to all the records they are entitled to see under state law. Journalists also should make efforts to see case files that have been sealed after the case is closed.
LEGISLATIVE RECORDS AND MEETINGS
USES: To monitor the activities of state legislatures and their committees.
AVAILABILITY: All records of a state legislature should be available, including bills, amendments, voting results, legislators’ attendance, committee actions and records of people who testify before committees.
NOTES: Legislative records are a staple of political coverage. In 2001, the Indiana legislature approved a bill exempting itself from the state’s FOI laws, citing reasons of security. Gov. Frank O’Bannon vetoed the bill following complaints from open government advocates, including SPJ.
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1995, The San Jose Mercury News examined in detail the role and influence of money on the state’s legislative process. The investigation tracked the flow of money into the Legislature and to its membership over the course of an entire legislative session, and demonstrated in detail the extent to which money spent by special interest groups results in staggering returns on their investments, in the form of tax breaks and special interest legislation which the public unwittingly subsidizes. (IRE Story File #12813)
LOCAL GOVERNMENT (INCLUDING CITIES, TOWNS, COUNTIES)
USES: To monitor the development and implementation of ordinances and policies. To monitor the activities and expenditures of local government entities. To monitor activities of the community over which local government has licensing or regulatory authority.
AVAILABILITY: Meetings of local government bodies, including town councils, city councils and commissions, county commissions, boards of supervisors, school boards, health boards, or other decision-making bodies should always be open unless a closure is specifically authorized by state law. Records of local government expenses, decisions and activities also should be available unless specifically exempted from open records laws. City records on licenses and regulatory activities also should be open. (Also see “Municipal Government” and “Health Inspections.”)
NOTES: Some local government policy-making bodies, such as full-time county commissions, may claim to be constantly in session and, thus, able to meet and discuss official business at any time. These kinds of policies can be used to circumvent laws on public participation. Local government bodies should be required to give advance notice of meeting times and agendas if public comment is to be taken or decisions are to be made. Decisions made in violation of open meetings laws should be challenged.
MARRIAGE LICENSES AND APPLICATIONS
USES: To monitor marriage statistics or confirm marriage data.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Information on marriage licenses should be available, unless exempted by state law as “vital statistics.” Applications for marriage licenses may be considered confidential because of the personal or medical information they might contain.
MEDICAL INFORMATION AND PRIVACY
USES: A person’s medical information is considered private. However, some information can be necessary in cases of public health emergencies or when an individual’s health is of great public interest.
AVAILABILITY: Journalists traditionally have relied on medical personnel for information on a person’s health status. For instance, a hospital might offer the condition and general extent of injuries of a person injured in an automobile crash. Similarly, medical personnel might share general information about people injured or sickened during an emergency or disease outbreak.
In addition, the health of public figures can be newsworthy. Americans are told routinely about the health of the President and Vice-President. Other government leaders or celebrities may share information about their health voluntarily or authorize the release of information.
NOTES: In response to concerns about medical information being shared by computer or other electronic means, the federal government has created new rules on medical privacy Those rules include severe penalties for revealing someone’s personal medical information. While the rules do not mention journalists or the public’s interest in certain medical information, SPJ believes they will intimidate hospitals and other medical institutions into not releasing any information about a person without that person’s clearly expressed permission.
MEETING NOTICES, AGENDAS AND MINUTES
USES: To monitor the activities of government, especially bodies that meet in regular sessions.
AVAILABILITY: Meeting notices, agendas and minutes should always be available, except in rare cases where compelling interests of confidentiality clearly exceed the public’s right to know.
NOTES: Without the prior notice of meetings, the publication of agendas and the existence of meeting minutes, it is doubtful the public could have meaningful participation in government. Only insiders with connections to public officials would know what was happening. Journalists also would have a harder time representing the public.
MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT (ALSO SEE LOCAL GOVERNMENT)
USES: To monitor the development and implementation of ordinances and policies. To monitor the activities and expenditures of local government entities. To monitor activities of the community over which local government has licensing or regulatory authority.
AVAILABILITY: Meetings of local government bodies, including town councils, city councils and commissions, county commissions, boards of supervisors, school boards, health boards, or other decision-making bodies should always be open unless a closure is specifically authorized by state law. Records of local government expenses, decisions and activities also should be available unless specifically exempted from open records laws. City records on licenses and regulatory activities also should be open. (Also see “Health Inspections”)
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1987, The Philadelphia Inquirer uncovered a complex $2 billion scam by Wall Street investment firm involving municipal bond transactions and off-shore banks. Because Municipal bonds are relatively unregulated, many cities lost millions of dollars. (IRE Story File #5379)
NAMES OF PUBLIC EMPLOYEES
USES: To identify contacts in government agencies and monitor government employment.
AVAILABILITY: Names of public employees in government agencies should be available, except in rare cases where national security or defense is involved.
NONPROFIT GROUPS (SEE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE)
USES: To monitor government supervision and inspection of long-term care facilities for the elderly and disabled.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Each state should have an agency that oversees the standards of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Reports of inspections should be public, although information on personnel and patients may be considered confidential.
NOTES: Alleged abuses or neglect at nursing homes have been subjects of investigative news stories for decades. While some of these stories have been reported through the use of undercover surveillance techniques, publicly available inspection records can play an important role in exposing or confirming alleged problems.
STORY EXAMPLE: After reviewing more than 300,000 death certificates from 1990 to 1999, the Tulsa World found nearly 1,000 people died of preventable causes in Oklahoma nursing homes. In addition, their investigation found “doctors actually viewed the body after death in only about three out of every 20 cases.” Furthermore, records showed autopsies were performed “in less than one percent of nursing home deaths in the 10-year period.” The article detailed preventable causes of death in nursing homes (dehydration, falls, urinary tract infections), the warning signs of poor health care and what citizens are doing to change the system. (IRE Story File #17869)
OPEN MEETING LAWS
USES: To guarantee public participation in government and prevent secret decisions by government officials.
AVAILABILITY: Although each state has its own approach to open meetings law, meetings of public bodies should be open in almost all circumstances. State laws may allow closures of meetings to protect personal privacy, litigation strategy or collective bargaining strategy, for example.
At the federal level, open meetings may be governed by the Government In the Sunshine Act or the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
NOTES: State codes are notorious for including exemptions to open meetings laws in sections unconnected with the main law. A thorough legal search and analysis of state codes can give a clearer picture of your state’s law.
OPEN RECORDS LAWS
USES: To guarantee public access to government documents and records.
AVAILABILITY: Each state has its own approach to open records laws.
NOTES: Just as with open meetings laws, state codes are notorious for including exemptions to open records laws in sections unconnected with the main law. A thorough legal search and analysis of state codes can give a clearer picture of your state’s law. Open records advocates in many states (including SPJ and other journalism organizations) have conducted extensive “public records audits” to assess how well state open records laws are implemented. In every case, state and local agencies have not fared well.
STORY EXAMPLE: Colorado’s daily and weekly newspapers set out to learn if citizens could get simple information guaranteed under the state’s open records laws. One-third of the agencies failed to produce public records. (IRE Story File #16999)
USES: To confirm facts of a person’s resume or vitae. In some cases, information from personnel records can illustrate an individual’s perspective in a dispute with a public sector employer.
AVAILABILITY: In most cases, government agencies should be able to confirm whether a person worked in a particular job at a particular time. However, detailed information in personnel records generally is considered confidential unless the person waives the right of privacy.
PHOTOGRAPHS (INCLUDING DRIVERS LICENSE PHOTOS)
USES: To provide a photograph of an individual from government files.
AVAILABILITY: Increasingly, government-held photographs of individuals have been held to be private and personal by laws and courts. Under the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act, drivers license photographs are considered “personal information” and thus are not available to the general public or journalists. State information managers may decide to make photographs available on a “case by case” basis depending on circumstances. (For instance, in 1996, after the federal DPPA took effect, the Montana Department of Justice provided the media with a drivers license photo of Ted Kaczinski after his arrest for the Unabomber crimes.)
POLICE (ALSO SEE LAW
STORY EXAMPLE: The American Prospect looked at the use of police powers to enforce law on private property. The story reveals that police officers – often in uniform – are hired by private developments to enforce their rules on private parking, speeding, trespassing, loitering, etc. The magazine revealed that while police officers cannot give a speeding ticket to someone who is violating a private speeding limit on a private speed, they could consider arresting the violator for “operating to endanger.” The reporter found that “taken together, these moves represent a qualitative, though little noted, expansion of public law enforcement into the realm of private space.” A major finding was that the approximately 25,000 private communities that already pay for their own private security patrols could argue successfully that they should not have to pay to support the public police system because they are policing themselves. (IRE Story File #18439)
PRISONS, PRISONERS AND CORRECTIONS SYSTEMS
USES: To monitor the activities of prisons and the housing and treatment of prisoners.
AVAILABILITY: Information on prisons and prisoners varies greatly from state to state. Some states severely restrict contact between journalists and prisoners in the name of security or to prevent prisoners from becoming media celebrities. Access to inmate information in federal prisons is largely restricted on grounds of inmate privacy. Direct access to federal inmates themselves also may be restricted by an individual warden’s policies.
A troubling trend in recent years has been the increase in privately-run, for-profit prisons. Access to facilities and inmates at private prisons can be virtually impossible for journalists.
NOTES: In the year 2000, SPJ conducted a survey of all 50 states, including the District of Columbia and the federal prison system, on their prison access policies. Information from that survey can be found on the SPJ Web site at www.spj.org.
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1990, the Sacramento Bee conducted a computer-assisted study of the “war on drugs” and found it is a costly failure that has targeted blacks, the poor and addicts. The investigation found that whites comprise a majority of drug users, but the majority of those arrested are black. A court order opened probation reports regarding drug offenders that previously had been closed. (IRE Story File #7314)
USES: To protect legitimate privacy interests of individuals or businesses in the private sector.
AVAILABILITY: Although privacy laws at both the federal, state and local level are accessible, they may be scattered throughout the codes. It may take painstaking research to gain a complete picture of privacy laws at a particular level of government.
NOTES: Privacy may be the leading issue facing journalists covering government. Legislative bodies at all levels have tried to expand privacy protections for Americans by exempting government records from inspection. In addition, executive branch agencies have extended privacy protection in new areas by administrative rule or by executive order.
USES: To monitor activities and governance of publicly-funded schools and school districts.
AVAILABILITY: Information on public schools, their administrators and teachers should be treated just like any other area of state or local government. Student records are covered by federal law, which offers a high degree of privacy protection.
Meetings of school boards or similar governance organizations should be subject to open meetings laws.
NOTES: In un-incorporated communities that lack municipal government structure, the school board is the most important local government body. It may be the area where there is the most conflict within the community. Local school boards also have a reputation as among the worst offenders when it comes to closed meetings.
STORY EXAMPLE: Coverage of public schools is a core area of any local journalistic medium.
USES: To monitor government contracts with private sector agencies for specific services and, where possible, to monitor the operations of entities jointly managed by private enterprises and government agencies.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. The operations of some quasi-public agencies or entities may be exempt from open records or meetings laws because of the private sector’s involvement. However, the contracts between the public agency and the private entity should be public.
QUESTIONS TO ASK AT AGENCIES (SEE W)
STORY EXAMPLE: In 2000, the Chicago Reporter produced the following story on racial profiling in Chicago: “Students at the all-boys Hales Franciscan High School are fighting – and beating – the odds. In the last four years, all of the school’s graduates have been admitted to college. But statistics show that black men and boys in Chicago are more likely than any other group to drop out of high school, get arrested, spend time in jail or prison – or be victims of homicides.” Alden Loury examines the situation facing black men in Chicago by looking at his life and experiences. Loury finds that many black men aren’t as fortunate as him. Black men in Cook County are 17 times more likely to go to prison than white men. Loury also cites a 1995 study by The Sentencing Project that says that on any given day almost one in three black men in their 20s is in jail, prison, on probation or parole. Loury also discovers hope for young black men in a number of programs around Chicago designed to give young black males much needed role models. (IRE Story File #17921)
RADIO STATIONS (SEE BROADCASTERS)
REAL ESTATE APPRAISALS, NEGOTIATIONS
USES: To monitor the value of property for tax purposes. To monitor the purchase of land or other real property by government from the private sector or from other government agencies.
AVAILABILITY: Government appraisals of property for tax purposes should be publicly available. In the case of a government purchase of real property, the actual contract for purchase should be public. However, the negotiations for purchase may be confidential under state law.
REGULATORY BOARDS AND AGENCIES
USES: To monitor the activities of industries or individuals that affect public resources such as land, air and water. To monitor the licensing of certain professionals, including doctors and lawyers. Some states may require licensing of barbers, beauticians and other professions.
AVAILABILITY: Much of the information in regulatory files is available. However, privacy laws may cover certain kinds of documents or records. In the case of professional licensing, the law may allow the public to know about disciplinary actions taken against an individual. However, the proceedings that lead to the action may be confidential.
SUPERFUND CLEANUP (E.P.A.)
USES: To monitor clean-up of toxic areas declared eligible for funding by the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Superfund” program.
AVAILABILITY: Documents associated with Superfund sites are publicly available, including feasibility studies, remedial plans or other reports. Superfund clean-up includes extensive public participation at open meetings and hearings.
SUPREME COURTS (INCLUDES DOCKETS, HEARINGS, OPINIONS)
USES: To monitor activities by the highest judicial bodies at both the state and federal levels.
AVAILABILITY: Supreme Court dockets (the schedule of cases to be heard) are available. Oral arguments before a Supreme Court also are open to journalists, although the presence of cameras or other recording devices are prohibited at the United States Supreme Court and some state courts.
Supreme Court opinions are always available at every level.
NOTES: The United States Supreme Court took an unprecedented step in December 2000, when it heard the dispute between the Gore and Bush campaigns over vote recounts in Florida. Immediately following the arguments, the high court released tapes of the arguments to the media for broadcast. SPJ and other organizations had asked the court to allow the arguments to be televised via C-SPAN, but the high court declined.
STORY EXAMPLE: USA Today examined the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the law clerks chosen by the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Of the 428 law clerks selected by the current justices during their respective tenures, just 1.6 percent have been black; 1.2 percent Hispanic; and 4.2 percent Asian. One quarter were female. USA Today looked at reasons behind this lack of diversity. (IRE Story File #15122)
USES: To understand how the tax system works and see whether it is administered fairly, particularly in the area of private rulings and agreements. To monitor the system under which tax exemptions are granted, as well as the activities of tax-exempt organizations.
AVAILABILITY: Individual and corporate income tax returns are confidential, and on the federal level, criminal penalties under Section 6103 of the Tax Code apply to government employees who divulge them. However, “written determinations” such as rulings and guidance documents issued by the IRS and state tax agencies generally are open for public inspection, and many agencies make them available on their Web sites.
In the tax-exempt area, both the IRS rulings granting or denying tax-exempt status and the annual tax returns of exempt organizations, known as Forms 990, are public. Each tax-exempt organization must make its 990 available to any member of the public on request. IRS exemption rulings are issued weekly and are published routinely by tax publications, including those offered by the Bureau of National Affairs and Tax Analysts.
One exception to the secrecy surrounding tax return information arises when a taxpayer wants to resolve a dispute with the IRS by filing a case in the U.S. Tax Court. All Tax Court petitions must include a copy of the IRS Notice of Deficiency, in which the agency tells the taxpayer what errors it believes the taxpayer made on the return. Records of Tax Court cases may be reviewed in the court clerk’s office in Washington, D.C. and recently docketed petitions are available for about six weeks in a petition review room at the court’s Washington D.C. headquarters.
NOTES: Federal tax laws are so complicated and confusing that even tax professionals (including CPAs and lawyers as well as tax return preparers) need detailed guidance about how they work. As with any complex legal system, these laws also are open to different interpretations about how they should be applied in individual circumstances. And, as with any complex legal system, there is danger that if the law is administered largely through private rulings, taxpayers whose tax advisers have special access to the agency’s interpretations will be able to get more favorable rulings than other, similarly situated taxpayers without such access. Thus, concern about maintaining “transparency” in the federal tax system led Congress in 1976 to mandate that the IRS release certain classes of documents, making them available for public inspection after they are “redacted” (edited) to remove confidential information.
Because of this law (Section 6110 of the Tax Code) the IRS routinely makes its rulings available in the FOIA Reading Room (Room 1621) at its headquarters building in Washington D.C. Most determinations and rulings also are available on the IRS Web site.
Perhaps because of the mandate for public disclosure in the Tax Code, IRS has long maintained one of the best federal government Web sites. (Press releases can be found here.) In particular, click the FOIA button on the red bar across the top of the home page. Rulings from the IRS Office of Chief Counsel are available from a link on this page. Other interesting documents are available from the next page (click “Additional IRS Products Available Online” at the bottom) including the Internal Revenue Manual and more than 50 industry audit guidelines (MSSP Guides.) The Site Map is another great tool that can act as a high-level keyword index to the site.
On the down side, the agency has a dismal record of responding to FOIA requests in a timely fashion. The IRS routinely does not answer FOIA requests within the time period prescribed by law and, generally, inquiries about the status of the request result in denials. This may be a desirable result for reporters seeking to speed the request into the appeals process or the courts. Public interest groups and tax publishers have sued the agency many times since 1976 to update the kinds of documents that must be released under Section 6110.
STORY EXAMPLES: 1) In reviewing the annual report of XYZ Corporation, you read that the company is contesting a federal tax assessment for 1998 relating to its accounting for sales of timber reserves to a development company. You can search for the company’s name at www.ustaxcourt.gov/ (under Docket Inquiry) to verify that a petition has been filed. You also can get copies of the petition and other documents from the court to help research your story.
2) You freelance regularly for Hospitality Monthly magazine and they want you to do a story on some financial aspects of the Bed and Breakfast industry. You can download the market segment audit guide for B&B’s at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-mssp/b&b.pdf and find a wealth of information that helps you frame a story about how a B&B owner can keep out of trouble with the IRS.
3) You’ve heard about something funny going on at a new mental health foundation, but you don’t know enough about its structure to ask questions that might help you investigate. You can ask the foundation for copies of its exemption application and the IRS’s letter ruling on the application. You also are entitled to review the foundation’s tax filings (990’s) for the last three years. (Be prepared to pay a copying charge of no more than $1 for the first page and 15 cents for each additional page for any document you request be copied.)
TAX RETURNS (SEE INTERNAL
NOTES: Individual and corporate tax returns are confidential. However, returns from nonprofit agencies (form 990 returns) are available for inspection.
TELEVISION STATIONS (SEE BROADCASTERS)
TRANSPORTATION SAFETY (ALSO SEE HIGHWAY
USES: To monitor the safety of publicly-regulated transportation providers, including air carriers, railroads, maritime transport, bus carriers and trucking companies.
AVAILABILITY: The federal government maintains a large amount of data within the Department of Transportation and its subsidiary agencies, much of which is available via the Internet. States also regulate certain areas of transportation-related commerce, although the type of agency varies.
UTILITY RECORDS (PUBLICLY-OWNED OR REGULATED)
USES: To monitor the actions of utility regulators and government-owned utilities such as electricity, natural gas, telecommunications or water systems. Some government regulatory agencies also may have jurisdiction over transportation issues as well as utilities.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Decisions by regulators that deal with private-sector utilities should be made in public, although some proceedings may be covered by privacy law. Publicly-owned utilities should be subject to a stricter standard of openness.
The federal government also includes agencies that oversee energy and telecommunications providers such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. Those agencies are subject to both the federal Freedom of Information Act and the Government In the Sunshine Act.
NOTES: The trend of state de-regulation of utilities means there may be less for state regulators to regulate. Public sector regulators also may declare certain documents or agreements between private sector parties as confidential, even though they may play a role in a regulatory decision.
STORY EXAMPLE: WKRN-TV in Nashville found that the manager of the local utility district had worked without supervision for 20 years. Public money and equipment was misused for private work, and utility bills varied greatly depending on the client’s relationship with the utility. The story also showed that a member of the three-member board of directors was under investigation. (IRE Story File #7293)
VIDEOTAPING PUBLIC MEETINGS (ALSO SEE CAMERAS
IN THE COURTS)
USES: To allow the public to see and hear government actions.
AVAILABILITY: With the exception of courtrooms, the presence of video cameras is generally accepted throughout government. Some institutions, like Congress, provide their own exclusive video feeds of proceedings.
VIOLENT CRIME RECORDS
USES: To monitor the frequency and severity of violent crime in American society.
AVAILABILITY: Statistics and reports on violent crime are compiled by state and federal agencies, notably justice departments. These reports and statistics should be available to journalists and members of the public.
VITAL STATISTICS (INCLUDES BIRTH & DEATH CERTIFICATES)
USES: To track population and demographic trends.
AVAILABILITY: Varies by state. Some states consider “vital statistics” to be confidential. Others may allow some access, particularly for death certificates.
STORY EXAMPLE: See “Business Records”
VOTING (INCLUDING REGISTRATIONS, BALLOTS & EQUIPMENT)
USES: To determine the percentage of the eligible population that registers to vote and actually casts votes in a given election. Political organizations also use this information to identify potential voters.
AVAILABILITY: Lists of registered voters are generally available. Government contracts with private sector vendors of electoral equipment also should be public. Ballots also may be available for inspection under supervision. The analyses of Florida’s presidential ballots by The Miami Herald and a consortium of other major news organizations, while inconclusive in their results, showed the value of journalists’ access to ballots.
STORY EXAMPLE: The failure of the punch cards in Florida in the 2000 presidential election has the voting machine industry ramped up to get a hold of any new voting machine business that may ride on the tails of the $3 billion subsidies under consideration by Congress. In 2001, Philadelphia Magazine reported on the Shoup family, formerly the “first family of voting” and makers of the “U.S. Standard Voting Machine.” According to the article, the Shoups were getting back into the voting machine business, despite the fact that a senior family member was convicted of trying to trade political favors with a city commissioner. (IRE Story File #17961)
WHAT FORMAT ARE THE RECORDS KEPT IN?
NOTES: This is especially important when records are stored electronically. The agency which holds the records may use a different computer file format than the requester. Very few state laws require agencies to provide records in a format convenient for the requester. Agencies may try to charge large fees for re-formatting of files.
WHEN MAY RECORDS BE INSPECTED?
NOTES: If your open records law states that records are available during normal business hours, agencies should be held to that standard. Some laws may allow a waiting period between the time records are requested and the time they are delivered.
WHERE ARE THE RECORDS KEPT AND MAINTAINED?
NOTES: This can be one of the most important questions for a journalist, especially an investigative journalist. The more specific information you have on where records are kept, the more likely you are to get the records you need.
WHO’S IN CHARGE OF THE RECORDS?
NOTES: This also is an important question. There may be layers of bureaucracy between the person who holds the records and the person truly in charge of them. Conversely, the person truly in charge may be low on the organizational chart. (Think of the water district clerk in “Erin Brockovich.”)
WHO CAN SHOW ME THE RECORDS?
NOTES: This may or may not be the person in charge of the records. Depending on the bureaucratic structure of the agency or entity, the person who actually can access the records and hand them to you may not be a manager at any level. It be an office clerical worker.
WHY ARE SOME RECORDS NOT AVAILABLE? (SEE
NOTES: The answer to this question may be clearly stated in statute or administrative rule. If it’s not, then journalists should learn the reason why records are off limits. Unwritten policy? Simple recalcitrance? Open hostility? The answers to this question may be interesting stories in themselves.
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1998, Texas Observer reported on worker safety at a meat processing plant and alleged abuses by management. According to the IRE abstract, “a worker’s hand gets cut off once every five years at IBP meat processing plant. Management says that’s not a problem. The company’s cost-control strategy...a system that relies on the plant’s easily intimidated, largely immigrant, replenishable work force, its complacent union and business-friendly laws.” In one case, a right-handed worker who lost her right hand signed a waiver with her left hand while heavily drugged. She subsequently had no memory of doing so. (IRE Story File #15620)
X-FILES — SECRET RECORDS (ALSO SEE
USES: To illustrate what government records are completely unavailable to the public.
AVAILABILITY: Although records referred to here as “X-files” are not available to the public, government agencies should acknowledge their existence in all but the most extreme cases.
NOTES: Are “X-files” growing more numerous in your state or locality? If there are new proposals or laws to expand privacy protections, what are their effects?
STORY EXAMPLE: In 1987, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reviewed state inspection records and found that more than half of Colorado’s 5,400 diagnostic X-ray devices were overdue for safety inspections. (IRE Story File #5404)
XENOPHOBIA (THE FEAR OF LETTING IN OUTSIDERS)
NOTES: Some government officials suffer from a variation of this condition. They believe their duty is to protect government records instead of properly administer them. They may fear that letting out the wrong information will cost them their jobs or create other problems for them. They may be distrustful of citizens or journalists who want to see records. This condition has been displayed numerous times when journalism organizations have conducted public records audits.
YEARLY SUMMARIES (INCLUDING ANNUAL REPORTS &
USES: To offer status reports on issues or aspects of government.
AVAILABILITY: Unless the report contains very sensitive information, such as material dealing with national security, these kinds of reports should be available to the media and the public. They may even be part of an agency’s public relations effort.
NOTES: Some annual government reports, such as those on crime or health trends, are newsworthy in themselves. Others can be useful references for stories on specific topics.
STORY EXAMPLE: The Des Moines Register reported on the lack of yearly inspections in more than “80 percent of Iowa’s counties.” The Food and Drug Administration enforced new food safety standards in 1997 and the Iowa Legislature “followed suit with a more demanding inspection schedule based on risk. More than half of the state’s 16,000 restaurants and groceries would have to be inspected twice a year, and one-quarter would require three inspections. Medical officials heralded the law before realizing it did little to pay for the plan. Inspection fees were increased for the first time in 23 years.” The result, no “follow-up inspection every time a critical violation is discovered” and that leaves restaurants and grocery stores with repeated violations still in business. (Also see “Health Inspections.”) (IRE Story File #17817)
YOUR OWN INFORMATION, WHAT CAN YOU SEE?
USES: To illustrate what is considered public information or to illustrate how privacy laws work. This kind of approach also can illustrate changes in records laws.
AVAILABILITY: An individual should be able to see any government record dealing with his or her own life.
NOTES: Care should be taken with these kinds of stories so they do not turn into “scare” stories about “who can get your information.” A carefully researched and presented story might show that there is more of a threat to personal privacy from the private sector than from government records.
ZONING AND COMMUNITY PLANNING
USES: Land use planning, through the use of zoning, comprehensive plans, growth policies or other tools, should be a public process with hearings and comment periods. The public should be involved in the decision-making process and should be able to review documents used in the process.
AVAILABILITY: Written plans and other documents, whether in draft or final form, should be available to the public. Meetings of deliberative bodies should be open.
STORY EXAMPLE: Outside Magazine reports on the Molokai Ranch near Maui, “where rooms run $355 a night and guests spend their days mountain biking, kayaking, snorkeling, fishing...the resort is the centerpiece of the Ranch’s 54,000 acres.” The Ranch once “had been considered as fundamental to the island’s way of life, and as inextricable from its future, as the sun. But that was before Big Pineapple pulled out and poverty settled in; before Big Money came ashore with bold plans for converting the Ranch into a resort and real estate empire.” Now native Molokai’s are upset that the Ranch is using their natural resources, decreasing their fresh water supply and threatening their simplistic ways of life. Reporter Joe Kane provides insight on the issues. (IRE Story File #17893)