With open records, UC-Berkeley paper show how a little patience can yield big results



Correction: We corrected the quote relating Alex Yoon Hendricks interview with Professor Emeritus Eric Gans and subsequent loss of access. The managing editor mistakenly thought UC press relations had directed them not to contact Gans, but it was Gans who began directing requests to his attorney.

Last week, the Daily Californian at the University of California-Berkeley dropped a bombshell report: about one third of University of California system employees found to be in violation of sexual misconduct policy between 2013 and 2016 were still present on UC campuses.

It took almost a year to get to this point.

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(Phillip Downey/The Daily Californian)

Last year, the University of California-Berkeley campus was rocked by the revelation that 19 campus employees had violated sexual misconduct policies since 2011, including the dean of the school of law, Sujit Choudhry.

The newspaper decided to take it a step further: in April, then-reporter Austin Weinstein submitted California Public Records Act requests for Title IX investigation documents from all ten UC institutions.

“We knew we could get them because they had released those type of documents before, so we expanded our request to the entire UC system,” Weinstein said.

That’s a big undertaking considering the sheer size of the system, one of the largest and most prestigious in the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took a while for the university to compile and vet the documents.

“We kept receiving notice from the system-wide public record office saying that they would eventually release the documents to us but they kept deferring the date to which they would do that, so they would say ‘we intend to release these documents in November, then November came and they would say ‘we need until January,’” said managing editor Andrea Platten. “At a certain point, we’re just like, ‘we’re never going to get these.”

Eventually, the student journalists got the documents they asked for. On Feb. 28, UC released the records, totaling 113 sexual misconduct investigations of UC faculty and staff.

Different universities redacted varying amounts of material from the documents, ranging from fairly intact investigations to a nightmarish piece of paper that resembled a bar code:

However, Platten said she understood why the campuses might have taken so long to release the documents in bulk. She also said she was proud of how her staff, some of whom asked their professors for accommodations, tackled the project.

“We were able to pool our resources so efficiently because people were just so interested in covering this revelation of documents. Tons of people rose to the occasion, decided they wanted to help cover it. We just had tons of help and things just went by pretty quickly considering how many papers we had to go through,” Platten said.

The project is ongoing, including data reporting on how the UC campuses presented their investigations, details on how UC has changed its policies under President Janet Napolitano and a statement from the editorial board.

One outstanding piece of reporting to note is an interview with a University of California-Los Angeles professor emeritus who had violated the sexual misconduct policy, who blames faculty members “who are women, by the way” for his case. Platten credits the scoop to a Daily Cal reporter going directly to the source instead of through the university.

“Our reporter, Alex Yoon Hendricks just called him up … it just felt like forever that she was talking to him," Platten said. After that initial call and subsequent story, Gans began sending requests through his lawyer.

However, not all of the lessons learned in the project came easily. The Daily Cal erroneously attached photo of the wrong professor when the paper published the aforementioned interview. In a formal apology, editor-in-chief Ritchie Lee said “we will use this unfortunate accident as a teaching moment to ensure that our fact-checking processes prevent such grave errors in the future.”

After the documents came out, other newspapers in the UC system have been quick to contact the Daily Cal and own the story on their campuses. The Daily Bruin at UCLA contacted the Daily Cal and has begun localizing coverage of the document drop to their campus, for example.

Platten feels good about the Daily Cal’s place on point for this story.

“We’re the campus newspaper on the flagship UC campus, so we feel there’s a responsibility to report news like this when the implications are so wide reaching, it affects an entire system of which the Berkeley campus is a part of. And we feel that that is of public interest.”

Tagged: blog, Blogroll, California, open records, recent-news, Title IX