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Home > Publications > Quill > Writing about denials


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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Writing about denials

FOI news pegs and authoritative sources for stronger stories

By David Cullier

One of the most effective ways of overcoming a public records denial is to tell people about it.

Yet a lot of journalists hesitate to write stories when government hides information from the public. Some say it’s “insider baseball,” a conflict of interest to write about disputes between journalists and government.

Wrong.

The government isn’t saying “no” to the journalist. It’s saying “no” to the thousands or millions of people in the community. As proxies for citizens, journalists are entrusted to tell the public when government keeps information secret.

Some journalists say the public doesn’t care.

Wrong again.

Survey research shows that people care about open government, especially when the documents concern tax dollars or public safety.

I know, I know, it’s not comfortable covering our own public records denials. As a former city hall reporter, I found it challenging to find the right peg to justify a story about a denial. I couldn’t come out and say the mayor was full of crap. I needed something substantive to hang it on, backed up by authoritative sources.

So here are some FOI news pegs and sources to help you write about denials with legitimacy and authority:

FOI news pegs

I personally think anytime a public agency denies a legitimate public records request it’s worth a story. But not everyone agrees with me. You or your editor might need more to go on. So consider these FOI news pegs:

1. Law breakers. It’s newsworthy and ironic when government knowingly breaks the law. Verify, using the expert sources listed below, that the agency is breaking the law, get the agency’s response, and focus on why it matters to the public.

2. Rogue agency. Find out how other agencies handle the dissemination of the same records. You might find that everyone else provides it. It’s newsworthy when an agency is deviant.

3. Under investigation. Contact your state’s attorney general, auditor, governor or other official whose job it is to oversee compliance with public records laws. Ask if they will look into the matter. If so, you have a story: “Attorney general to investigate mayor’s refusal to provide text messages.”

4. Board questions staff. Ask each member of the governing body what he or she thinks about the staff keeping the information secret. When a city council members says the information should be public and raises the issue at a public meeting or by memo, then write about it.

5. The anecdote. Find a real person affected by the denial and write a news feature story focusing on that anecdote. Stories about human angst and injustice are newsworthy.

6. Mass noncompliance. Conduct a public records audit in your county or state and find how all agencies respond to requests. Methodical research is newsworthy. See the SPJ FOI Toolkit for tips on doing an audit.

Authoritative sourcing

Once you have a solid news peg, bolster your story with authoritative sources. You can’t say the school superintendent has rocks for brains, but an expert can.

1. SPJ Sunshine Network. SPJ FOI Committee members will give great quotes. Find contact information online. Contact me at (520) 626-9694 or by e-mail me cuillier@email.arizona.edu. Also, find your state SPJ sunshine chairman.

2. State press associations. For a press association in your state, check out a list online by visiting SHG Resources. Find your state’s coalition for open government.

3. FOI organizations. Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, provides fiery quotes that will singe the hair off secretive public officials. Also, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (legal defense hotline: (800) 336-4243) and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government are helpful. If dealing with a school issue, contact the Student Press Law Center.

4. Legal minds. Talk to the top media law attorneys in your state. Lawyers can’t provide legal advice unless you are a client, but they may be willing to give you their opinion for a story. Find a journalism professor at a nearby university, or a FOI-friendly attorney at your state attorney general’s office who will provide context and quotes.

So the next time a public official denies you access to public records, call the authoritative sources and let the world know.

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