FOI ethics: Weigh benefits and harm on airing 911 tapes

A good story today by The Associated Press highlighted the effort underway by some states to close 911 records because of a few media outlets airing distressed callers. I am quoted as saying that it’s important to keep the records open so we can make sure our public safety agencies are working correctly. One government person argues that people will be less reluctant to call 911 if the tapes are public. That’s just silly – as if a person in dire need is going to assess the public records issues before making a call.

However, this raises a very good point about FOI ethics. Just because we have access to records doesn’t mean we have to put them out there for everyone to see. We can choose some restraint, voluntarily, weighing the benefit with the harm. Airing the tape of a woman screaming and sobbing might be gripping for sweeps, but is it really necessary? Maybe, maybe not, depending on the situation. But we must think it through carefully and be able to explain to the average person the public benefit of airing the tape. With rights to accessing records comes responsibility, and if we don’t take that responsibility seriously we’ll lose those rights.

College journalists: Get into a doc state of mind in Phoenix

This week college journalists will converge on downtown Phoenix for the Associated Collegiate Press national conference, and we hope they won’t want to miss some sessions on accessing public records (check out the incredible program):

  • Mark Goodman, former director of the Student Press Law Center, will do a session on accessing public records, 1-3:45 p.m. Thursday.
  • Database reporting on campus. Steve Doig from Arizona State University will give a session on accessing data for investigative reporting on campus, 9-10:05 a.m. Friday.
  • The art of access. I will give a talk on access strategy and useful records for campus papers, 10:15-11:20 a.m. Friday.
  • Craig Harris from The Arizona Republic will give a session on how he broke a big story by using public records laws, 3:30-4:30 p.m. Friday.
  • When law and ethics collide. Student Press Law Center attorney Mike Hiestand will talk about circumstances for when it might not be ethical to publish something from a record, even if it is legally permissible.

52 hours to provide a list of county employees?

A requester in Maryland asked for a list of county employees with their salaries in an electronic format. Pretty simple. But the county responded saying it would charge $40 per hour for 52 hours of programming, or $2,000 (first two hours are free). That’s crazy! When this was posted on the FOI-listserv today many people offered suggestions for the reporter, including:

  • Write a story about why it takes so long for the agency to copy basic data.
  • Look at the FOI requests submitted to the agency (or a FOI log) for the past few years to see if someone else has asked for the same thing. The county might have given out the same information for free previously.
  • File a request for a breakdown of the specific calculations and documentations for that 52-hour estimate. If they actually had anything calculated it is likely unreasonable and inflated.

    Nominate your local FOI heroes for national contest

    Do you know someone in your community who works tenaciously for open records? If so, nominate them by FRIDAY, Feb. 26, for the Local Heroes Contest sponsored by the American Society of News Editors. The grand prize is an all-expense paid trip to the ASNE convention in Washington, D.C., April 11-14. Other winners will win cash and be honored during national Sunshine Week March 14-20. Fill out the online nominee form here.

    DUI checkpoint records reveal vehicle pot o’ gold in California


    The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley used DUI checkpoint data to discover police and tow-truck companies raking in millions of dollars in seized vehicles  from illegal immigrants, according to a Feb. 13 report. Reporter Ryan Gabrielson analyzed checkpoint data, car seizure records, census data and other documents to find law enforcement making big bucks from the seizures. See his explanation of how he did the story, including how he used SPSS statistical software to examine whether Hispanic neighborhoods were being targeted. Request to see impound records from your city or county to find out if seizures are up, particularly as local governments are strapped for cash. Good job, Ryan (one of the expert record hounds quoted in our Art of Access book).

    Too much transparency? Yglesias responds

    In a sort of oblique way, the NYT’s David Brooks said recently that maybe too much transparency is a bad thing. Here, Matthew Yglesias, a smart commentator, responds, in the process adding some interesting perspective on the meaning of openness. It’s a discussion worth following…

    Nursing home records expose problems in Texas

    Whether you cover the health beat or have relatives in care facilities, you can tap into nursing home inspection data to find problems in  your own community. Check out a great investigative report by the San Antonio Express-News on Feb. 14 that found 2,200 claims of abuse and lack of care by  55 licensed nursing homes in the city between 2006 and 2009. The newspaper linked to a nice look-up function where people can find inspections on any nursing home in the nation. Furthermore, if  you want to snag the records yourself, go to the Medicare online data download center. Choose “Nursing Home Compare” and save as an Access file if you have Microsoft Access. Check out the file on inspections (SRVY_DFCNCY).