Freedom of information laws an ‘untapped tool’ for student journalists

Citizens’ rights to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened everyday, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on efforts by student journalists to access information and report in the sunshine.

Last November, during the height of college football season, something funny was going on in Auburn, Ala.

The Auburn University Tigers were undefeated in the regular season. But each week the Bowl Championship Series rankings–partly determined by the secret votes of 61 football coaches–delivered bad news to Auburn fans: Auburn never cracked the top two.

Jeff D’Alessio and his fellow sportswriters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to know why.

“There had been some controversy raised over who was and wasn’t voting Auburn … in the top two,” D’Alessio said. “There had also been some controversy over [the University of Texas] and [the University of California], which were switched on some polls in the late season … so we wanted to see who had who where.”

The sportswriters knew that just asking the coaches for their ballots would not do the trick. So they put some muscle behind the queries: They submitted state freedom of information act requests for the votes.

On Nov. 30, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution submitted open-records requests to 61 coaches who participated in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

It may sound unusual to those who think sports reporting is little more than recording play-by-play. But, D’Alessio said, these days freedom of information laws have as much to do with sports reporting as they do with front-page scoops.

Open-records laws are “an untapped tool,” D’Alessio said. “It’s amazing the kinds of things you can find.”

Already in 2005, D’Alessio and his colleagues have run five stories that were proposed and researched using open-records laws, including an investigative piece on recruiting practices at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

“We got everything–from the bill of dinner at a nice restaurant in Atlanta to one of the assistant coach’s oil change,” he said. “You’re entitled to get it all if you ask for it.”

Joseph Jesselli knows firsthand the unusual stories that open-records laws can produce. Jesselli is a staff reporter at, which has built an empire out of publishing the results of open-records requests on its Web site. Infamous mug shot photos of actor Nick Nolte and the transcripts of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s lawsuit were acquired because of open-records laws.

Student journalists can reap the benefits of open-records laws too, Jesselli said. All they need to do is know where to look and who to ask, he said.

“It’s about knowing what to ask for. That’s the key. That’s what the journalism is,” Jesselli said. “Yeah, the stuff is out there, but you have to know what to ask for and know what’s going to be interesting.”

Brant Houston, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.–an organization based at the University of Missouri journalism school that provides services to investigative journalists–said the possibilities for open records- and open meetings-related stories are endless. The organization posts stories on its Web site that were reported using freedom of information laws. The site also links to databases created with public records, including one FBI database of campus crime statistics.

As for D’Alessio and his colleagues at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, their open-records request did not crack open the secrets of the BCS voting process. Only six schools complied with the newspaper’s open-records requests. Some schools denied that the ballots existed. Others said outright that the coach’s vote was not subject to state freedom of information laws.

University of Colorado sports information director Dave Platti said he recorded Head Coach Gary Barnett’s vote with a non-university pen on non-university paper and phoned it in to USA Today on a non-university phone, to ensure that his vote would be beyond the reach of open-records laws, according to D’Alessio.

“Our legal people felt that it was Gary’s vote and not the university’s vote,” Platti said.

But the story may have served a different purpose, D’Alessio said: In April the NCAA commissioners and BCS officials will vote on whether to discontinue the current voting system, which some critics argue is not subjective and clouded by secrecy.

“We certainly put some pressure on [the coaches] that they weren’t used to,” D’Alessio said, which is why he said open-records laws should be employed in journalism even more widely than they are. Student journalists are learning the benefit of open records and how freedom of information laws can improve their stories, he said.

“It’s not something only big papers should be doing,” D’Alessio said. “It’s something that makes for really fascinating journalism, frankly.”

–By Campbell Roth

Read previous Sunshine Week coverage.