SUNSHINE WEEK 2011: Your right to know — take it out for a spin and see what it can do

I recently had the chance to teach a workshop about the use of freedom-of-information laws to some exceptionally bright college journalists from across the South. The focus of the presentation was overcoming obstacles when government agencies delay, deny or deflect requests for public records.

To get things started, I asked the 45 attendees, by a show of hands, to indicate how many of them had actually filed an open-records request. I assumed one-third, maybe one-half, had selected that particular workshop to get answers to their questions about why their requests went unfulfilled.

Zero hands went up.

This is disappointing but entirely understandable. All of us, journalists included, suffer from an overload of online information that we cannot possibly process. A student juggling journalistic work against a universe of competing responsibilities and distractions can be excused for thinking, “There’s already much more data searchable online than I’ll ever be able to read — why would I want to ask for more?”

The answer, of course, is that even the best online data can be incomplete or misleading. Student journalists have, for example, used independent public-records digging to demonstrate that the crime reports disseminated by their own colleges were deceptively incomplete.

It is possible to have a very fine journalistic career without ever making a request for public records, of course. But the secret to being a successful entrepreneurial journalist in the digital age is to have an original take on the news, adding some value to what is already out there in the public domain. And a person who is skilled at gathering original information not otherwise widely available will have not just a fine career but an outstanding one.

In honor of Sunshine Week 2011, here are some resources to help you get started on the way to attaining FOIA ninja status:

  • Recently updated legal guides in the “Know Your Rights” section of the SPLC website demonstrate how to lift the lid on secretive university foundations, analyze crime trends on college campuses using the Clery Act, and gain access to student government records and meetings.
  • The SPLC’s monthly podcasts often highlight examples of excellent journalistic work exemplifying innovative uses of public disclosure laws. Some of the very best guest experts have included:
    • Reporter Mc Nelly Torres of the Florida Center for Investigative reporting, on how to investigate the growing trend of unaccredited, for-profit high schools.
    • Reporter Nathan Halverson of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, on building the paper trail to show how university foundations invest and spend donors’ money.
    • Reporter Ben Protess, describing how the Huffington Post Investigative Fund documented questionable affinity marketing agreements between colleges and credit card companies.
    • Reporter Kristen Lombardi of the Center for Public Integrity, explaining how to find the records and sources that shed light on the way colleges investigate and punish sexual assaults on campus.
    • Reporters Jodi Cohen, Tara Malone and Stacy St. Clair of the Chicago Tribune describing how college journalists can uncover preferential VIP admissions policies at their institutions.
  • The automated open-records request letter generator on the SPLC’s website has been successfully used many thousands of times, by professional journalists and by citizen activists as well as by students, to simplify the process of asking for government docuements.

It is wonderful to use Sunshine Week as a time to speak aspirationally about improving transparency in government, but plenty of information already is available for the asking and is going unexamined. There is no better way to commemorate Sunshine Week than to take your rights for a test-drive. You never know what you might find.