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Getting the data you deserve from records requests

By Jing Ren

Steven Rich from The Washington Post, Sarah Ryley from The Trace and Annie Waldman from ProPublica shared their insights on how reporters should request open records at the state and national level at their CAR Conference panel.

Waldman focused her presentation on clarifying the roles and functions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). She said public officials who are covered from these two laws often misuse them. Therefore, journalists need to fully understand what the legislation specifically applies to when they try to request data sets.

Any of the following personally identifiable information is protected under HIPAA when combined with health information, Waldman said:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Birth, death, admission and discharge dates
  • Telephone and fax number, email addresses
  • Social security and medical records numbers
  • Health plan number, account number
  • Driver’s license number, vehicle serial number
  • Web URL and IP address
  • Finger and voice print or photographic image
  • Any other characteristic that could uniquely identify a person.

On the other hand, HIPAA does not protect:

  • Hospital directory information
  • Statistical data on hospital billing
  • Medical examiner data
  • Ambulance or emergency medical services
  • People who are entitled to their own records.

Waldman noted that HIPAA also allows for de-identified information to be released, so reporters can ask for such data sets as well. She also mentioned that reporters should check out state legislation and know the privacy restrictions before filing the data request.

It’s important for reporters to check that the data they’re requesting isn’t already online before they reach out to experts and negotiate, Ryley said. She also noted that it’s crucial for reporters to treat everything they write as legal documents, and all communications should be clear, concise, professional and formatted in the right way.

Journalists need to keep in mind the different groups of people they encounter, she said, because among these people are not only public record officers, but also attorneys and IT experts who code the data the media request.

Rich is adept at filling mass FOIA requests. Compared to separate FOIA requests, he thinks filling numbers of FOIA requests to different agencies and asking for the same information make a difference in data journalism.

However, reporters should keep in mind that even though different departments keep the same information, they may code it differently. Reporters need to make sure the records are standardized and that there is no issue with definitions in different systems. Journalists should keep an eye on missing fields as well, he said.

Jing Ren is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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