By Ashley Sutherland, Arizona State University
Delays. Excessive redactions. Fees. These are just some of the issues journalists and other citizens face when requesting public records from the government.
David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, and Miranda Spivack, a professor of journalism at DePauw University, offered tips and strategies on how to obtain public records during a session at the IRE Conference in Phoenix.
Spivack started by sharing a few public records that she has found hard to obtain, such as the most dangerous highways in a state, and body camera and dashboard camera footage.
Cuillier suggested different tools journalists can use to ease the public records process:
Every week, reporters should submit one public record request using the services and tools available to them, Cuillier recommended. He also called for a reframing of the process. Reporters should not request records, they should “order” them, he said, reminding attendees that “the people” have the power in open records processes.
“It’s like ordering food at a restaurant,” Cuillier said. “It’s like ordering a book at the library. It’s like ordering something from the store or Amazon. You just put in an order for what you’re entitled to.”
When filing a public record “order,” Cuillier suggested not to be neutral or nice, and to instead use legal language in the request letter. Additionally, both the Student Press Law Center and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have online record request letter generators.
Cuillier mentioned “soft” psychological tactics journalists can use to obtain public records:
If these “soft” tactics don’t work, you can try some “hard” tactics to get public records:
Finally, Cuillier suggested attendees support the cause by donating to funds that fight for journalists’ rights.