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Home > Publications > Quill > 8 simple rules to getting the documents you need


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Tuesday, March 6, 2007
8 simple rules to getting the documents you need

Commentary by Joel Campbell

When facilitators take SPJ’s national newsroom training on the road, we suggest ways to create a “document-driven” newsroom. Stories based on documents are more thorough and carry much more credibility.

Here are some steps reporters can take to make that happen on just about any beat.

1. On daily and long-term stories, ask yourself and colleagues what documents would help to verify the information. When reporting about a community council, I got a tip the council president was using public money to fund his own pet projects. A public records request to a state agency that administered the council’s grant produced receipts and other information that showed that the tipster was right.

2. Ask sources what documents you might obtain to verify information. This should be a standard question for just about any interview. You might be surprised when a source mentions a routine report or document that might be critical to a much better story. When reporters broke open the Salt Lake Olympic bribery scandal, they used two key documents: a letter and an IRS Form 990 of the Olympic organizing committee.

3. Make requesting records part of your beat routine. Don Baker, a legendary Utah investigative reporter, was always content to cover local government beats. Some of his best work came from the graft and corruption at suburban city halls.

Baker routinely carried around records request forms with him to government meetings. At the end of the meeting, he would submit four to five records requests based on the discussion.

Reporters should also think long-term because document-driven stories take more planning and patience. Devoting a couple of hours each week to planning projects and preparing records requests can pay big dividends.

4. Get to know your state’s open records and open meetings law. The best tool to fight a record request denial is knowledge of the law. A growing set of primers on state laws can be found at the FOI Committee’s “Creating Document-Driven Newsrooms” page on SPJ’s Web site. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press publishes an Open Government Guide for each state that is an invaluable primer on access laws.

It’s also good to bookmark links to your state law in your Internet browser. Get to know the law and be able to respond when you are denied access to a record or meeting. Get in touch with a local SPJ Project Sunshine chairman if you have questions or want more training.

5. Understand the federal Freedom of Information Act. A basic understanding of the federal FOIA can help you get many records about state and local government. Any time federal funds are involved, a report is usually available from federal overseers.

6. Start collecting databases and other kinds of information listings. At the top of my list are internal directories of government agencies. Many government agencies publish directories in a book form or make it available through an internal Web server. If you cover city hall, common listings you ought to request are databases of business licenses, campaign contributors and contracts. Such databases are key to many stories including “pay to play” stories that might show how top campaign contributors also get government contracts from an agency. The business license list may also come in handy on a breaking story when a fire destroys a local company.

7. Map the government. Along with an agency directory, ask for an organizational chart. As you examine even the most obscure office, ask “What sorts of documents might be generated by the activities of the office?” In fact, many states require governments to file “retention schedules” or “master indexes of documents” that might help you better understand the kinds of information recorded and stored by a government agency. Even surfing an agency’s Web site can generate ideas for document-driven stories.

8. Get a budget. The budget might be a first step to understanding the “haves and have nots” of a government agency. Request three to five years of a budget, and then do some simple percent increase and decrease calculations with a spreadsheet program on department budgets. Usually the departments with the largest budget increases and cuts are worth investigating.

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