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Home > Publications > Quill > How to crack the DNA code of public records


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Tuesday, August 1, 2006
How to crack the DNA code of public records

By Joe Adams

Public records exist in your state that could change your

life as a journalist.

Boost your beat. Help you dig like never before. Convert future years of learning about public records into minutes. Change the way we teach journalism.

Sound too awesome to be true?

You bet. But these public records are real. And they exist in your state.

Welcome to “retention schedules” — obscure inventories of records that help government officials know what to keep and how long to keep it for legal, administrative and historical purposes.

They establish order in the government records universe.

And they allow journalists to crack the genetic code of public documents.

The first rule of public records use is that we can’t use a record if we don’t know it exists.

Retention schedules tell us what exists.

In Florida, for instance, 14 general records schedules are in place, including for state government agencies; local governments; law enforcement; school systems; court clerks; state universities and community colleges; elections; and public health facilities.

Some of the gems these records reveal include public school substitute teacher rosters, gunshot wound reports, fuel use logs, surveillance videotape records and vehicle accident reports for public employees.

General retention schedules normally are found in a state’s division of archives and records management or its equivalent. As in Florida, many are online. Besides general schedules, some agencies and offices have their own schedules that you should request as well.

Of course, just because a record shows up in a retention schedule doesn’t mean it is public. That status depends on state public records laws.

But if you find a record in a retention schedule without a legal exemption, the record should be available.

Also, remember that governments may not have every document indicated on the schedules and they occasionally generate records yet to be listed. Sometimes governments retain documents longer than the schedules require.

Regardless, using retention schedules can move the ground we stand on in journalism.

Consider the way most of us learn about records: one story and beat at a time — over years.

The sporadic general assignment, conference, professional journal piece or story we read might expose us to other records avenues.

The cycle continues over the years.

But what if we had a fast-forward clicker that we could aim in different directions?

Retention schedules offer it.

Moving to the cops and courts beat? Check out the schedules and the hundreds of records for law enforcement and the courts.

Covering education? Get the schedules for school systems and discover records you never knew.

City Hall is your new gig? Then see what the schedules reveal for local government.

They will broaden your horizons for story ideas, force you to rethink what must be covered and how you will use your time.

They will provide an edge, whether you have competition or not.

They will make you better — right away.

You’ll make more meaningful records requests because you know what officials are supposed to have.

You’ll hold public officials more accountable because you’ll know more about what they do and how they did it.

You’ll anticipate the news better because you’ll know more about the paper trails made by the system.

You’ll do more enterprise stories based on records.

You’ll be a better digger.

You’ll juice your skill set and become a more valuable player on your news team.

I discovered these records in the late 1990s while researching The Florida Public Records Handbook, which involved identifying and profiling 150 of the most useful files, reports and single documents in state and local government.

I began teaching other journalists about them in 2001 as part of public records workshops at newspapers throughout the Sunshine state.

“Why aren’t journalism schools teaching this?” is a question I’ve heard more than once over the years.

My best answer: We teach what we know.

A number of professors who have attended my workshops are telling their students about them. This article is part of a broader effort to spread the news to instructors, students and working journalists alike.

Whether you’re starting a new beat or starting a new day on an old one, start with the retention schedules.

You’ll find records you never heard of.

You’ll produce stories you wouldn’t have thought of.

And your journalism career will take off in ways you never dreamed of.


Joe Adams is an editorial writer at the Florida Times-Union, author of The Florida Public Records Handbook and host of www.idiganswers.com about Florida public records use and open government news. This essay is part of his material for an upcoming textbook on public records use titled “Wear Those Public Records Glasses!”

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