SUNSHINE WEEK: High school journalists dig through public records to get the real dirt

From bland to bam, stories that go beyond the surface

Diana Mitsu Klos, senior project director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, shares tips for student journalists who want to use open records to practice better journalism.

  • Don’t sell your readers short by doing the same-old “surface” stories. Everyone criticizes cafeteria food. Take it a step further. Look into how cafeteria contracts are awarded. Read through health inspection reports detailing your caf’s cleanliness. See if the food meets FDA nutritional guidelines.
  • File open records requests seeking information about teacher and administrator salaries.
  • Delve into the finer points of how, and who, creates the school budget.
  • See if the condition of your school’s buses is up to par.
  • Because of increased government secrecy, sometimes what should be readily available info is more difficult to access. Know what records you are entitled to before you ask. Don’t back down and know how to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
  • Don’t sidestep research by turning a hot topic into an opinion column. “It’s much better to do the right research and get viewpoints rather than use the pronoun ‘I.’ The better you become, you realize the story is not about you at all.”

Student journalists at Desoto High School could have written a story on how administrators were spending money to solve the gang problem at their school.

The problem was, there was not a gang problem at the suburban Dallas school and the school district was already hurting financially, said Eric Gentry, a former staff member of the DeSoto student paper, the Eagle Eye.

“There wasn’t a lot of money to be thrown around when there wasn’t much money to begin with,” he said.

Intrigued by what seemed to be wasteful government spending, Gentry, along with three other staff members, dug deeper.

After being tipped off in November 2004 in an e-mail about the credibility of the company doing the investigation, Project JAMS (Just Another Means of Success), the reporters looked through public records to learn more about the company.

Gentry went to the administration office and asked to see the application of JAM’s director, Aman Rashidi. From there, the students grew skeptical about Rashidi’s past employment, including a claim he had implemented his program at Columbine High School after the school shooting.

One by one, Rashidi’s “past employers” denied they ever employed him. Administrators from the few schools he did actually work at told Gentry, “Get your money back.”

Gentry said, to his knowledge, no criminal charges were ever brought against Rashidi.

The reporter also requested copies of the check the school wrote Rashidi for $65,000 -- prepayment for the gang study. Project JAMS was requesting $1 million in all.

For the most part, administrators readily gave student reporters the information they sought. But there were a few times when Gentry had to threaten legal action if he was denied records, he said.

“I don’t think they realized we realized what we could get,” Gentry said.

For their investigative efforts, four Eagle Eye reporters and their adviser Carol Richtsmeier, who Gentry said was a huge help guiding the students, were awarded the 2005 Courage in Journalism Award, a scholarship given by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

Gentry also received a $25,000 Free Spirit Scholarship from the Freedom Forum in 2005 and is now a freshman at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, where he is studying the Bible and journalism.

Many high school students are not sinking their journalistic chops into such meaty stories, and it may be because many are not using public records for their research, said Diana Mitsu Klos, senior project director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

“It’s simply a matter of understanding your basic rights and how useful [public records are] in researching and telling stories,” Mitsu Klos said. “It’s about being able to do the type of stories that go below the surface.”

In December 2005 a group of student reporters in Minnesota also exemplified not taking something at face value. The staff of Stillwater Area High School’s student paper, the Pony Express, was excited to write a story about an interesting potential transfer student who said his name was

“Caspian James Chrichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland.”

SPLC’s Sunshine Week stories from last year

According to Pony Express adviser Rachel Steil, while they will deny it now, most students and staff believed a real 17-year-old British Duke was considering attending their southeast Minnesota school.

But after staff members interviewed the Duke about his royal exploits -- which included being babysat by Princess Diana and hanging out with Hilary Duff -- something even weirder happened. The Duke bestowed “royal” papers on the staff demanding he have the chance to read the article before it printed. Oh, and he wanted to be referred to exclusively as “His Grace” or “Your Grace.”

The students and their adviser investigated --

making use of the National Sex Offender Registry and placing a few calls to the British Embassy. The newspaper staff eventually discovered the Duke was not only a fraud, but also a 22-year-old registered sex offender named Joshua Adam Gardner.

Gardner was arrested for violating parole and is currently being detained in a Minnesota jail. According to an article in the Pioneer Press, a local paper, sheriff’s office investigators are looking into the possibility Gardner had illegal sexual contact with a Stillwater Area High School student.

Pony Express staff members call the courthouse every day to check on the progress of the case, they said.

Students at both these schools enriched their stories by tapping into public records. The students in Texas had the choice of playing it safe and writing that the school was paying a company to look into a gang problem. The students in Minnesota could have let their excitement get a hold of them and write about their school’s brush with royalty. But both followed inklings that something was not quite right, and they used public records to confirm their hunches.

Doing any less would be a disservice to the school and the community, Mitsu Klos said. “The biggest disadvantage is you’re not telling a full, complete, factually driven story. Students in particular and society in general are ill-served when they get these small bites of information when they don’t see what’s on the plate.”

--by Emily Walker, SPLC staff writer

Check the Student Press Law Center’s Web site tomorrow for more examples of how high school journalists can use public records to write stories. The SPLC is running a story each day this week highlighting open records issues specific to student journalists in celebration of Sunshine Week.

DeSoto High School, Eagle Eye, news, Sunshine Week