TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Try this at home – some creative uses of FOI laws that you can swipe

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of teaching a public-records workshop to a roomful of bright, eager reporters at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 11 convention. To bring home the value of using open-records requests as a foundational part of newsgathering, I showed off some exemplary work by journalists, college and professional, who took advantage of freedom-of-information laws to break noteworthy stories.

For the benefit of those who couldn’t share the weekend with us in San Diego, here is a collection of those links, which I hope will cause skeptics who see public-records journalism as a double-helping of broccoli to appreciate that persistent and imaginative reporters can use FOI requests to whip up a sizzling platter of steak:

  • Breaking the Defensive Line of Silence: The NCAA has convinced the courts that it is not a government agency amenable to public-records requests. But where the Lord closes a door, he opens a window — though the people at the NCAA aren’t God, they just think they are — and your FOI window is through a request to the public university itself for correspondence with NCAA regulators.
  • Opening Doors on Who’s Opening Doors: You’ve got a tip that well-paid elected officials rarely come to their offices. But high-ranking executives rarely punch a time-clock, so how do you document their comings and goings? If you are fortunate, they may carry government-issued keycards that open their office doors — and the data recorded when those cards trigger the lock (or the blank page showing that the card-holder wasn’t using the card at all) should be gettable under state FOI law.
  • No Names, No Problem: Individual students’ educational information is private under federal law, and probably beyond the reach of a public-records request. But once the identifiers are taken out, numerical data is not legitimately confidential (though some schools stubbornly resist this), and numerical data — for example, the number of times a college writes to parents notifying them that their child has been busted for substance abuse — may be all you need to nail your story.
  • Trust, But Verify (Repeat as Necessary): If your “spin detector” is telling you that the picture portrayed in public records is too good to be true, trust your instincts. For example, if a large public university tells you it has received zero reports of sexual assaults over the past three years, get a second opinion — municipal police and the FBI keep their own data, and if the university’s “rape, what rape, we didn’t see any rape” records can’t be squared with what law enforcement is reporting, make the university explain why.
  • Don’t Read This One Before Dinner: Sometimes public records disclose the concealment of violent crimes, but sometimes they just reveal who’s been taking a dump in the salad bar. Nonetheless, the inspection reports of college and high-school cafeterias are newsworthy and can make for a compelling read — and the absence of regular reports may expose an unlawful violation of federal inspection standards.
  • What’s In Your ‘In’ Basket?: Although some recent court rulings have narrowed the scope of which government employees’ e-mails must be disclosed under FOI law, correspondence about the business of a state agency — including a state college — should be a boilerplate public record, whether paper or electronic. E-mails often are written colorfully and without the self-editing that accompanies a written report, and some dogged digging through electronic messages (e.g., the warnings of building inspectors about the lack of progress on costly college construction projects) can yield buried treasures.

What these stories have in common is reporters who didn’t stop with the initial “no” or with the initial incomplete (at times, deceptively incomplete) records production. It can be frustrating to encounter delays, denials and excessive costs, but remember that the documents implicating government officials in wrongdoing will rarely be the ones they hand over immediately, completely, and free of charge.