It is Sunshine Week and we are celebrating with some really great information about public records from WRAL investigative journalist Tyler Dukes. I sat down with him for about a half hour to talk about what young journalists should know about public records and how you can learn to use them.
You can follow Tyler at @MTDukes on twitter.
You can follow along with Sunshine Week at @Sunshineweek
Q: Why is Sunshine week important to journalists?
A: Sunshine week is our annual reminder about why we do this stuff. I think there is a greater awareness of the fact these records are accessible to the public than there was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Sunshine week is our opportunity to educate the public and for us to reeducate ourselves, as journalists, government officials and citizens about what the laws are that govern transparency.
This doesn’t just apply to public records. This is also open meetings, which are extremely important. The decisions public officials are making on your county level, on your state level, on your city level…all of these things are done with this idea that open government is better government. That’s a value that journalists and citizens share and frankly a lot of people in government share too.
Q: For a lot of people who are getting into the business, this is a very intimidating subject. How do you even begin?
A: I think the attitude we try to approach public records with is that if it is created by the government, it belongs to us. It’s important to know public records law typically applies on a state by state basis, so unless you are asking for a federal record which is a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) issue, you’re typically going to be dealing with laws that are different state by state.
In North Carolina, what’s nice, is this idea that “records are default public” is sort of written into our law. Some states have lesser degrees of that.
There are many exceptions to this. There’s patient privacy, there’s academic privacy, there are issues surrounding criminal investigations, but at least in North Carolina those exceptions have to be explicitly laid out and the people who respond to our requests have to point to them.
Really this should make sense internally because our tax dollars have paid for the creation of these records. They’re ours. We are entitled as citizens to access them, to copy them and to use them to expose the inner workings of government good and bad.
So I think really the most important thing if you want to be a reporter who makes use of public records pretty often is you want to come at this with an attitude of “these already belong to me,” and it’s contingent upon the public official to convince you otherwise. That tends to help you in the negotiation.
Q: What should a reporter do if they have their public records request wrongly decline?
A: It is important to remember sometimes, depending on who you are dealing with, if you are dealing records on a city or county level you may have public officials who don’t really know public records law. This is an opportunity for you as a journalist to say “well no actually that is not how this works. There is a state records law.”
You don’t have to be a jerk about it. My default stance a lot of times is “polite insistence.” I try to make sure I am very polite, very straight forward about what I want. Sometimes it does require you to point to a specific law. I think in North Carolina specifically, the public records law is not terribly long and it’s not a bad read as general statutes go. So it helps to know the state law for your specific state with regard to public records. That’s a good starting point because you can literally point to those statutes.
The other thing is to sort of act in good faith. I have argued with many a public records officer about these issues, but one of the things I hope they understand from the very beginning is that I am not trying to make their job harder. I am trying to do my job. I also recognize sometimes accessing and copying or pulling down public records, be it emails or whatever it may be, it does take work on the part of public officials. One of the things I do try to do is make sure the request I am making is as narrowly tailored as I can make it. That doesn’t mean we are always making small requests. Sometimes we are making very large requests, but I typically want to communicate with that public records officer and say hey look, if you have suggestions on how to make this easier, I am all ears. I will consider those. I am not going to back down from what I want but I do want them to know I am arguing in good faith.
Q: Is it important for your station to have legal backing in case something does go wrong? What about smaller stations without access to lawyers?
A: Having lawyers on your side is a hell of a thing. I think here at WRAL we are in an ideal place because we have sued over public records. In fact we are in the middle of a lawsuit right now. That is getting rarer and rarer so what you are seeing is we are entering into the lawsuit with a coalition of news organizations, but you don’t need lawyers. Things have to get pretty bad because a lot of times people will clam up when you start to think about lawyers.
A lot of times you have the ability to go in and argue on the legality of public records without including legal counsel and that is just done by pointing to the law.
Q: Where is the best place for a young journalist to go to learn the law in his or her state?
A: One good place is the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. They have a couple of really great resources including generators that allow you to type in some basic details and will generate a public records request for you or a FOIA request for you. They also have a detailed breakdown state by state of how the records laws work.
Another great resource you might think about is looking at what is typically called “open government coalition” or something along those lines. In North Carolina that’s what it is. It tends to be collection of news organizations and municipalities and counties and other government groups who are all interested in open government.
Q: How do you get to the point when using public records becomes second nature and almost fun?
A: I think probably the first document you get where you really see a story, a big story that no one else has, that you found and you are able to report that out and tell a great story…I think that becomes a real driver. Because it stops becoming a battle for pieces of paper and becomes a battle for true intelligence about government and the way government operates.
I would say on Sunshine week, take the opportunity to submit a public records request to your school or to your city or county or your state. It’s a really great learning experience.