Brechner Award Goes to Asbury Park Press

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The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information is where I cut my FOI teeth nearly 20 years ago. It’s a great center well worth following!

The Asbury Park Press has been named the winner of the 2010 Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award for exposing questionable use of taxpayer dollars in New Jersey and how that state’s property tax system harms the economy. In addition, the Asbury Park Press raised awareness of a gap in the public records law that allows cities to delegate duties to private vendors, who in turn charge high fees for public information.

“The Asbury Park Press’ series demonstrates the indispensible role investigative reporting and open government laws play in exposing potential misuse of taxpayer dollars,” Sandra F. Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said.

The series will be recognized with a $3,000 prize, which will be presented to Asbury Park Press Regional Editor Paul D’Ambrosio at an awards ceremony at 8:30 a.m. March 25 at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. During his visit to UF, D’Ambrosio will also be a guest speaker in classes at the college. The Asbury Park Press was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its “Tax Crush” series.

The Asbury Park Press’ parent company, Gannett, sued a municipality in New Jersey based on the series results, questioning whether a private vendor’s ability to set its own fees for data obtained while performing a public function stifled the public records law.

“What the eight-day series reflects about the Swiss-cheese loopholes in basic public recordkeeping in New Jersey was more than embarrassing and infuriating,” one of the judges for this year’s Brechner FOI Award said. “The resulting litigation may even bring about some much-needed reform. Terrific journalism.”


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FOI soundbites: Focus on the key benefit of transparency

This morning I talked a little on CNN‘s American Morning show about proposed legislation in some states to make 911 tapes secret (clip). A victim rights person also was on the segment, arguing for the provisions to protect victim privacy. The segment was inspired by a recent Associated Press story on the issue.

I made the point that having tapes public can do some good (e.g., public awareness brought to the Toyota accelerator problem because of a 911 tape of a crash), and that journalists should and generally do follow the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics to weigh the public good against the harm in broadcasting tapes. But afterward I kicked myself because I didn’t make the most important point: Making the tapes secret will actually hurt victims, not protect them.

We make those records public in all but a few states so that our government will operate better, and to identify problems that need fixing. Because 911 operators know that calls can be aired in their community they treat victims with respect and do a better job. It’s human nature. If government can operate in secret then it can do bad things and get away with it.

When covering public records issues I think it’s important for us to focus on that basic fundamental reason for transparency. We get bogged down in legislative details and sometimes forget the big picture. I know next time I will write down that bullet point and make sure to get it in my soundbite. Transparency makes government better.

Investigate sexual assaults on your campus

The Investigative News Network released its first major project, on the lack of punishment by universities against rapists, based on an incredible amount of records gathering, interviews and surveys. They even explain how you can do the same reporting at your local university.

The year-long project, conducted by seven different state and regional investigative reporting groups, revealed a culture of indifference and lack of punishment for sexual assaults, sometimes leading to repeat offenders. The project also exposed a system shrouded in secrecy and under-reporting crime statistics to the public.

What I love about this project, other than the awesome reporting and writing, is a special Web page set up to help others do the same reporting. The Reporter’s Toolkit lays out the law, how to investigate the cases, and provides a long list of resources. Outstanding!

Also, this report shows, once again, that universities rarely report accurate crime statistics (see, for example, a project in 2004 that showed how universities in the Pacific Northwest under-reported crime stats, despite federal law (Clery Act) requiring they tell the public what is going on). It goes to show that you can’t trust everything in a public record – numbers are sometimes twisted to make agencies look better. That’s why it is important to triangulate – look at other places that might have similar records, interview people, and find out what’s really going on.

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.

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…

Welcome to The Art of Access!

Thanks for visiting our site! We hope you will find the information about accessing government documents helpful in your reporting and daily life. Check out the FOI resources above as well as the tips to the left, sorted by beat topic and chapters in our book. If you have any thoughts or suggestions let us know!

– David Cuillier and Charles Davis