The Associated Collegiate Press hosted its annual “Best of the Midwest” convention in Minneapolis this weekend, where hundreds of students from around the area got the chance to learn all sorts of great information about journalism. I usually find myself running from presentation to presentation or conducting newspaper critiques all day, thus leaving no time to catch other presentations. However, I caught a lucky couple gaps in my schedule Friday and got to see two sessions on open records and interviewing from some student journalists at UW-Milwaukee and their instructor, Jessica McBride.
The UWM folk, who produce content for MediaMilwaukee.com as part of their coursework recently published an extremely detailed story on sexual misconduct accusations on their campus that appeared to be swept under the rug. Based on their experiences here and in other work in hard-nosed reporting, these journalists provided some great information on how to go after the tough stuff. Here are five cool things about these issues that I learned from their presentations:
- Content matters more than format when it comes to records: McBride noted that although states vary on how public record laws work, in her home state of Wisconsin, the law dictates that it is the content of a record, not the format of a record that determines if it is open or not. “I once got a stack of pink messages slips a secretary took notes on,” she said during her speech. She also explained that in some cases, text messages, emails and handwritten musings can count as open records, so don’t limit yourself when you request. (One of the student presenters noted that she had inadvertently limited her request to “formal complaints,” which yielded no results. A second pass at the request with the word “formal” eliminated got her a document or two.
- Give yourself room to negotiate: I had never conceptualized of open-records request being like the way I approach buying stuff at a rummage sale, but this session gave me some food for thought. McBride said she often starts with a wider request, as in a larger swath of documents she asks for or a longer period of years than she might normally want. If the record keepers provide her with resistance because the request is too broad or request a large amount of money to meet the request, she often then narrows the focus to what she really wants. This prevents her from losing out on documents that she really wants but demonstrates a willingness to “meet people half way.”
- Go as a person. Be polite, respectful and firm: Nyesha Stone mentioned this during the panel she presented with fellow students Jennifer Rick and Talis Shelbourne. Stone mentioned that she used to feel awkward in asking for interviews or documents, but once she started thinking about the importance of the information she was seeking, she started feeling less anxious in some cases. (One of the students, I can’t remember who, mentioned that although repeatedly asking for documents or interviews helped diminish anxiety, they imagined that even veterans of this stuff never fully get over nervousness. She’s right, at least from where I’m sitting.) What helped her was to go talk to people as a person, she said. You want to be polite and respectful but also firm in your purpose. It opened a lot of doors, she said, and made her feel like she was getting somewhere.
- “The cheapest possible option:” As we’ve noted in the book and throughout the course of the blog, people who hold records and don’t want to give them to you will put up roadblocks in a variety of ways. One of the biggest ways is by trying to overcharge you for records and “research time.” McBride recommended that you ask for more recent documents first, as those are the least likely to be stored away somewhere that will require a lot of “research” to find them. She also mentioned something important: The people who hold the records have to lay out how much they think this will cost and how they came to that conclusion. In a lot of cases, research is based on X hours times whatever the hourly rate it costs for the person who does the digging. When this happens, she said, the people need to find the cheapest possible person eligible to find the records to do the digging. In other words, they can’t figure out what your chancellor’s salary is per hour and use that as a financial benchmark for the research costs. In addition, she noted that in Wisconsin, you receive the first $50 worth of location time for free.
- “Write about it. You’ll get the records:” The other way in which people will try to block your access to the records is by trying to wait you out and make it feel pointless to access the records. They try to out-wait you because they know you are likely to have a limited time to fight or that students will eventually graduate, so the requests will just die off. One of the key “helpers” you have when it comes to trying to crack that nut is the Student Press Law Center, which we’ve discussed here earlier. They can provide some legal guidance and legal muscle as needed to prevent record keepers from taking advantage of students. McBride also noted that writing about the process and the reticence of the organizations to produce public records can help draw attention to the situation and shame organizations into doing the right thing.
For more help on your specific state laws or suggestions on how to get records, check out the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s website.