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Strategies for getting the data and documents you need

By Quint Forgey

In our seemingly endless quest to obtain government documents, it’s important to recognize and alleviate the often tense relationships between reporters and public information officers.

During Friday’s panel discussion, “They’ve got it, you want it: Getting data and docs,” Rich Orman, senior deputy district attorney of Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, said bureaucrats are largely terrified of journalists and making a mistake on the record.

Orman said reporters should do their best to put agency workers, such as records custodians, at ease by explaining that the data story in question would be favorable to that agency.

If the agency refuses to turn over the records, however, Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition urged reporters to threaten to write a story about the difficulty in obtaining the records.

Another strategy for obtaining records is to develop a relationship early on with an elected official at the top of the agency’s hierarchy, Orman said.

“They can clear a lot of logjams,” he said.

When making public records requests, media lawyer Steve Zansberg told attendees to first familiarize themselves with statutes, case laws and the “Open Government Guide,” an online resource for journalists published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Turning to a media attorney should be a last resort, Zansberg said.

“We always urge reporters to ask (for the records) first and get a rejection before turning to a lawyer for help,” he said.

Quint Forgey is a junior studying political communication at Louisiana State University. He is the Editor in Chief of his school's award-winning, 129-year-old student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, and a Carnegie-Knight News21 National Reporting Fellow. His work has appeared in The Washington Post.

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