By Doug Haddix, IRE training director
Getting public records often takes far more effort than filing a written request and simply waiting for the juicy documents to arrive. “It’s reporting, not requesting,” says Shawn McIntosh, public editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The best reporters realize that a written public-records request usually is just one step to get the information they need, she told participants in an IRE Better Watchdog Workshop hosted by CNN in Atlanta. In most cases, reporters need to keep working sources, finding ways around obstacles and navigating through bureaucracies. She offered a variety of practical tips and advice to the more than 70 journalists and students at last week’s workshop. They included:
To counter expensive charges, ask for an itemized bill. Sometimes, that alone will prompt the office to reduce the price.
Practice law without a license. If you need to appeal a denial for public records, cite specific statutes and attorney general opinions. Copy your company lawyer on the letter, which sometimes can show an agency that you know your stuff and mean business.
Use the power of the pen. If denied records or quoted a high cost, write a letter expressing your disappointment and requesting a follow-up meeting to discuss why the public can’t get this information without spending lots of money and jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Signal that you’re considering writing or airing a story about how the office is denying the public information or charging exorbitant prices for something that’s already paid for through taxes.
Understand what records exist by examining a retention schedule or other list of records required to be maintained by the office. Narrow your request so that it’s reasonable and relevant.
Consider partnering with other news organizations to mount a legal challenge.
Understand who enforces public-records laws and work those sources – typically the state attorney general.