A Washington State University journalism class studying access to public records at universities in five Northwest states found many universities under-reported crime statistics and made obtaining the records difficult.
Led by journalism professor Susan Dente Ross, the class evaluated 20 universities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington. The class of 25 students requested records such as campus police logs, the number of rape victims treated by local hospitals and campus disciplinary board results from 2000 through 2002.\n
In addition to finding discrepancies in the records, students were “often shuffled around, ignored, berated and charged such high fees” they could not afford to continue, according to a Web site that explains the project.
Ross said she wants to offer the class again in tandem with classes in Idaho and Oregon to compare results on a broader scale. The Society for Professional Journalists and the Freedom of Information Center are encouraging more classes to do projects of their own.
This is the second time the university has offered the special topics class, which Ross said is “extremely valuable.”
“Many student reporters do not know the laws of access and have never walked through it,” Ross said. She said many students do not understand how difficult it is until they have actually tried to get agencies to comply with open-records requests.
Evan Caldwell, a senior communication major who took the class, said every journalism program in the country should run the project.
“Understanding the climate of access in and around the area in which I will work someday has helped me mature as a reporter,” he said. “Plus, I feel the outcome of our class research could really make a difference.”
SPLC View: This is a wonderful and important project and one that we hope might serve as a model for student journalism programs elsewhere. High school student journalists (and government record keepers) can also benefit from putting their freedom of information laws to work. To help get you started, the SPLC publishes a special packet, Access to High School Records, which we will e-mail free to any SPLC member who contacts us at firstname.lastname@example.org and mentions seeing this offer in LegalAlert. For information on conducting your own public records audit, see “It’s a Jungle Out There” in the Fall 2004 SPLC Report.