Mazie Bryant and Jillian Beck — editors of The Crimson White and The Daily Bruin, respectively — know how frustrating it can be to get answers out of their universities.
So after running into repeated reporting roadblocks, they’ve decided to call attention to their universities’ public records responsiveness by making their records requests more transparent.
In newly debuted trackers, The Crimson White and The Daily Bruin now publicize details of the requests they’ve submitted to their institutions. Each outlines the nature of a given request, when it was submitted and other details. (The Crimson White got its inspiration from a similar feature in The Oklahoma Daily and The Daily Bruin from The Daily Tar Heel, according to Bryant and Beck.)
For Bryant, the tracker’s been a goal since she became editor. In the last year, as in the past, she said The Crimson White staff has “had problems just getting basic information from Media Relations.”
Now, according to a recent editorial criticizing a lack of institutional transparency, the online tracker and an accompanying “Open Records Requests” feature on page two of the print edition “will become a permanent fixture in The Crimson White.” The editorial board views it as both an accountability tool and a way to practice what the newspaper is preaching.
“Unmonitored decision-making and unanswered questions will no longer be acceptable,” the editorial explained. “In our demand for University transparency, we, too, must be transparent. By rolling out this new system of records requests, we seek timely University compliance and openness to meet our own.”
So far, Bryant said, the response to the feature has been mostly positive — though some have questioned whether it will really spur change from university officials. But even if it doesn’t create a major shift in responsiveness, Bryant said the feature’s still important.
At UCLA, Beck and her staff have faced similar obstacles to getting answers out of their administration: “It’s not a new thing — that’s been happening for a very, very long time.”
This year, for example, she said Bruin staffers have struggled to get information about hiring practices in the business school, among other things. (The Daily Bruin is planning a short story about those challenges to be published soon, too.)
She views the tracker as an important tool for holding the university accountable, especially when delayed requests can stall the Bruin’s attempts to do.
And their advice to student journalists considering a similar project?
“Just to do it,” Bryant said. She was initially hesitant to get the feature up and running because she was worried that she didn’t fully understand the logistics required or the intricacies of public records reporting. Now, she realizes it was important to just get it started and learn from it along the way.
“There’s a lot of room for progress,” Bryant said, adding that she hopes to couple the feature with an increased emphasis on public records training for reporters and editors. “This is just the start of kind of changing what we report on and how we report on it.”
Beck echoed a similar sentiment, stressing that students shouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing this kind of project because their institutions have been unresponsive in the past.
“I would really encourage any student journalist, any student newspaper, to implement something like this,” Beck said. “It’s important to continue to submit these records requests because we’re entitled to them and the public’s entitled to them.”