A culture of open records





Student newspapers are essentially community newspapers, but with one trait that sets them apart from their commercial counterparts.

Student publications, which are often fueled by a volunteer work force, can field a larger staff. They can have a quicker response time. What students lack in experience, they can make up for with tenacity for chasing down provocative stories.

But that determination might lack direction, and even the most seasoned reporters can run short of story ideas. To avoid that, all reporters should be well versed in accessing public records.

These records can foster the kind of articles that both attract reader attention as well as hold leaders accountable. Each year hundreds of news organizations participate in Sunshine Week, which is specifically designed to underscore the importance of access to government records.

More than 700 groups were involved in the week this year, which ran from March 11-17, 2007. Organizations participated in a new nationwide audit where they worked to obtain the same public document from many local governments.

But the week itself is not the end goal. Rather, the purpose is to focus attention on open government and records access that can be carried over to the entire year, said Debra Gersh Hernandez, coordinator for the week’s events.

“If you look at the myriad stories that come from public records … it just shows how important it is to protect access” she said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bill Stith advocates that sort of perpetual dedication to investigative reporting. Stith, who writes for The (Raleigh, N.C.) News and Observer, is an expert in the use of electronic databases – used in newsrooms across the country as computer-assisted reporting.

He advises establishing a permanent mechanism in the newsroom that will create an investigative culture which, when nurtured by curiosity and dedication will allow writers to naturally consider how information from open records can be used

That kind of diligence to culling open records worked for reporters at The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina. In fall 2005, after an editor became curious how much the university spent on printing costs.

A reporter made an open records request, and with that data discovered that at the campus’s computer lab, where printing was free, students used more than 2 million sheets of paper each month, costing students and the university thousands of dollars.

The incredible amount of paper being used on campus, documented by a November 2005 article, caught the attention of student leaders at the university, who began a push for quotas to limit students’ printing totals.

An investigative culture in your newsroom will in the same way allow you to harvest stories from open records. It is a resource that gives reporters the ability to translate natural curiosity into thorough investigative articles.

During this year’s Sunshine Week, the Student Press Law Center offered student journalists examples of stories they could cover that would help create a culture of using open records in the newsroom. Here are a few stories from that week – some that were published online and others published for the first time here.

Try them out, or develop your own investigation using public records and share your successes.

Salary Information

Examining salary information at your school can be a great way to uncover interesting stories.

Typically, only public schools have to disclose salary information under state open records laws. At private schools, you may find some salaries for top administrators by requesting the school’s Form 990 tax form.

Before slapping an open records request letter down on an administrator’s desk, ask to see the salary information first. Use letters only when one is requested or if a verbal request is denied.
You can write an open record request letter by visiting the State Open Records Law Letter Generator on the SPLC Web site.

To find out how area schools handle salary requests, the SPLC decided to contact the University of Maryland and Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools and ask for salary information.

We contacted the Montgomery County Public Schools for teacher salaries at JFK High School.

After exchanging e-mails to clarify what we wanted to obtain, a public information officer provided us with a spreadsheet file of all the high school teachers’ salaries.

At the University of Maryland, Dale Anderson, director of university human resources, said his office discloses salary information it is obligated to share whenever a person provides an open records request letter, but typically charges for requests.

Anderson said that student newspaper The Diamondback requests salary information from his office every year. Diamondback editors said the salaries are a popular feature.

While the numbers alone might not make the story, the information can be handy to have around when that next big story breaks.

Bus maintenance

In seeking bus maintenance information in Arlington, Va., the Student Press Law Center contacted the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the bus system in Arlington, and Arlington Public Schools, which maintains school buses in the district.

The WMATA offers policy procedures online, but we called to request a fee waiver, which is sometimes permitted by law for non-profits or the media. We were redirected to the Office of the General Counsel where a waiver was verbally granted for a request under 100 pages. A detailed e-mail request for maintenance records concerning a particularly bus route was sent Feb. 13 and our request was granted March 13.

Unfortunately, a waiver was not available from Arlington County Schools. A district representative said while she “commends” the research, the district rarely endorses a waiver. A request was submitted on Feb. 15 and a follow-up call was made 10 working days later, when we learned our waiver had been denied. An official there said it would take up to eight hours of professional work to obtain the records in a specialized computer program for the district’s 125 buses — totaling more than $300.

A search or copying fee can often be minimized by reducing your request to a particular route or a narrow time period.

Health inspections

Food service establishments across the country are subject to routine health inspections, and those reports – be they from a school cafeteria or five-star restaurant – are almost always open to the public under state open records laws.

Health inspection grades likely are available at your county’s environmental health office, as are past copies of inspectors’ reports. In some counties, the information is even posted online.
We reviewed the health inspection history of a dozen restaurants in Rosslyn, the Arlington, Va., neighborhood where the SPLC is located. The records themselves may not be a story, but within the reports journalists can find trends and investigate local hangouts and eateries.

For example, one Rosslyn establishment that has been particularly prone to health code offenses tallied 68 critical violations during the 12 inspections it has had since February 2003. Those violations accounted for almost 20 percent of all critical violations in the area’s restaurants in that time span.

The restuarant was cited five times for the presence of vermin between January 2004 and April 2005 before the problem was rectified. One question for health officials, for instance, would be why it took five consecutive health inspections for the restaurant to correct its vermin problem.

A health inspector explained that a restaurant is closed when there is found to be an imminent health-hazard such as vermin infestation, which occurs when pests are present “in the food, basically.”

“If it’s critical enough, we’ll take action,” he said. “It’s judgmental: How many mice droppings do you get in trouble for?”


reports, Spring 2007