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TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Is Big Brother watching you -- from above? FOIA suit may reveal whether you're on Candid Drone-Cam.

(01/17/12 6:52pm)

To the ever-growing list of technology-aided privacy anxieties (does Google Image Recognition really think I look like a publicity photo from "Planet of the Apes," and did I have broccoli between my teeth when the ATM camera was on?), add this one: Are government drones videotaping my bald spot? In a suit filed Jan.



TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: No need for your No. 2 pencil. Just bring your skepticism.

(01/31/12 7:16pm)

Two recent announcements have spotlighted the importance of public records in bringing to light what now appears to be rampant dishonesty among school employees in fudging standardized test scores to improve their schools' rankings. Item One was the news from Oklahoma that the state was throwing out test results from six schools where investigators concluded scores were artificially inflated.




TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Hang on tightly to your FOI access -- the legislature is back in session

(02/21/12 5:47pm)

If legislative sponsors in New York get their way, it soon will be unlawful for college athletic departments to provide a team roster to The Washington Post, ESPN or any other national news organization. It sounds crazy, but it's the result of a pair of privacy-on-steroids bills, S2357 and A8474, filed last year in the New York legislature and awaiting consideration this session. These measures -- which began as limited and well-intentioned efforts to protect student confidentiality and morphed during committee hearings into something much more -- are emblematic of the mischief that sweeps the country this time of year, when state legislatures typically come back into session. A survey by American Journalism Review found that the number of reporters assigned to cover state capitols declined 32 percent between 2003 and 2009.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Don't take "no" for a public-records answer -- and don't take "copyright," either

(02/28/12 6:15pm)

On occasion, people in positions of public authority know "just enough law to be dangerous" -- not enough to actually get the answer right, but enough to convince themselves that they have, because the answer has lots of authoritative-sounding words in it. This is the story of one such occasion. Recently, the SPLC attorney hotline received what started out as an unremarkable call from a college journalist whose request to a government agency for public records was denied.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Profiling a bad guy? His rap sheet may be just a click away.

(03/06/12 9:16pm)

You're researching a news story on deadline about a crime. All you have is the sketchy information from a police report: The name, date of birth, and other vital statistics of the person in custody. In most states, that thumbnail of information is enough to get almost instantaneous access to extensive details about the person's criminal history -- free of charge -- and often a useable photo as well. State Department of Corrections databases are an under-appreciated resource for journalists on the crime beat.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Colleges can contract out their services -- but they can't contract away public disclosure

(03/13/12 9:21pm)

With cash-strapped government agencies seeking to contract functions out to private vendors and shrink the public workforce, the "savings" sometimes include economizing on transparency. Journalists seeking information on how public services get delivered are frequently told that the corporate contractors who provide "privatized" government services need not honor requests for public records. Strictly speaking, most state open-records laws apply to documents that are kept, created or used by government agencies in the performance of their duties.




TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: When the police investigation ends, your investigation is just getting started

(03/27/12 6:38pm)

Using an under-utilized information source -- the closed files of police investigators -- NBC News has shed new light on what campus police knew in 1998 about now-indicted coach Jerry Sandusky's "private workouts" with young boys in the Penn State locker room. NBC's widely cited reports, accompanied by original police documents posted online, are adding to the public's understanding about whether police responded adequately to the earliest known complaints that Sandusky touched kids inappropriately -- letting him go with the admonition to stop showering with boys, despite a psychologist's warning that the coach's behavior looked like "a typical pedophile 'overture.'" Because institutional memories in newsrooms are short -- and those in student newsrooms especially so -- journalists sometimes forget to follow up on cases that have been closed.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Earth-shaking reporting tips from the pros will have evasive sources quaking

(04/03/12 9:57pm)

After the devastating Long Beach earthquake of 1933, California swiftly enacted an unprecedented set of construction safety standards requiring new schools to be certified as quake-resistant -- and then, according to a 19-month-long investigative report, did very little to see that the standards were followed. To the contrary, a team of reporters from the nonprofit investigative website California Watch found, the job of certifying schools as earthquake-proof was put in the hands of questionably competent inspectors, and overseen by bureaucrats with cozy ties to the construction companies they were supposed to regulate. The result? Many thousands of construction projects never got the safety certification required by California's Field Act -- and hundreds more cannot be verified because their inspection files were simply closed due to missing paperwork. Public schools may be in need of a shake-up -- but not the kind that registers on the Richter scale. The journalists' April 2011 multimedia package, "On Shaky Ground," shared the highest award, the IRE Medal, bestowed Monday by the journalism training organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The work of the California Watch team, who partnered with journalists from San Francisco's KQED radio, is breathtaking in its use of every presentation method known to journalism -- even a smartphone app to help parents detect whether their kids' school has been identified as deficiently constructed.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Indiana court ruling further strengthens case for disclosure from private-college police

(04/10/12 5:53pm)

A federal court's recent ruling that Notre Dame police are subject to civil-rights lawsuits as "state actors" helps bolster the case for journalists to obtain access to records from police agencies operated by private colleges. In Torres v.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: An EZ story 4 u -- who's texting on the taxpayer's dime

(04/17/12 6:15pm)

The outcry over lavish spending on a General Services Administration retreat, where federal bureaucrats enjoyed $44 breakfasts, is a reminder that few things get readers more incensed than learning that government employees are treating themselves to luxuries that budget-strapped citizens are forced to scrimp on. That's why it's an especially good -- and easy -- public-records story to take periodic stock of how employees at your college or school district are using government-issued cellphones and other communication devices. It's been estimated that the average American spends $635 a year on cellphone service, one of the highest rates in the Western world (and since that estimate comes from 2008, before data-gulping smartphones were in universal circulation, it almost certainly is low). Because it's one of the biggest bills consumers pay every month, knowing that a state or city official is abusing a taxpayer-subsidized cellphone provokes special outrage. Last summer, the Nashua Telegraph published an examination of four months' worth of bills from phones issued to local government officials.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Private campus, public records -- SMU's Daily Campus puts on a clinic on covering sexual assaults, athletics spending

(05/01/12 7:25pm)

If your campus newspaper broke the story that big-name athletic director, recruited and paid top dollar to build a major-conference powerhouse, had helped instead dig the athletic program into an $18.6 million yearly deficit, you'd think you had a pretty strong semester. For the staff of The Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University, it might not even have been the biggest story of the week. That distinction may belong to the investigative team responsible for "Sweeping Rape Under the Rug," a painstakingly reported package that begins with a gasp-inducing statistic: "Over the past 25 years, more than 100 SMU students reported they were sexually assaulted.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: "That's personnel" is rarely the right response

(05/08/12 10:04pm)

How public employees are performing their jobs (or whether they're showing up at all) would appear to be pretty essential information for journalists (or just inquisitive citizens) to figure out whether government agencies are, or aren't, working effectively. It's long been the case, however, that personnel information is some of the toughest information to obtain by way of a public records request, in part because of the myth that personnel records are always confidential. For instance, a North Carolina television reporter was told that, because of "personnel confidentiality," she couldn't be told why the City of Charlotte was still paying the city's former top tourism official for at least two months after he left the job, or how long it would continue paying him into the future. And a New York requester recently was denied access to questionnaire responses completed by candidates for a city planning board, which asked about their qualifications to serve.



TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: When colleges go into P.R. mode, remember that the P.R. office creates public records too

(05/22/12 7:01pm)

For those responsible for burnishing the public-relations image of the University of Montana, the last half-year has brought a nightmarish cycle of one unspeakably bad story after another. First, the Grizzlies football program was plunged into turmoil by a string of sexual-assault allegations against prominent players, leading UM to fire its head football coach and athletic director. Next, the university was accused of foot-dragging in bringing charges against a visiting Saudi national student who -- when confronted with accusations that he raped one student and attempted to sexually assault another -- fled the country and evaded prosecution. Then, the U.S.


TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: You can't yell 'fire' in a crowded dorm -- but you can yell 'where's your fire safety inspection report?'

(05/29/12 6:22pm)

State inspectors recently wrote up Northern Illinois University for seven "severe" safety violations in a classroom/office building, including failure to label potentially hazardous chemicals or to make sure emergency lights worked properly. It was, a state Department of Labor official told the Northern Star newspaper, the first time in 11 years that the department had gotten around to visiting NIU. That sounds pretty slack, but in reality, a once-a-decade visit from independent inspectors still is more attention than a lot of college buildings receive. An Iowa City man is suing the University of Iowa, alleging that the university and its property management company failed to repair water leaks in his campus apartment, resulting in mold that made him seriously ill.