FOI teaching exercises

Session-long team projects

  1. Dream House
    This Great Idea for Teaching grand prize winner presented in 2006 by David Cuillier takes the traditional audit and adds a practical twist that makes FOI relevant to students’ future personal lives: buying a house. They are assigned a real house for sale in the community and then told to go out and find everything they can about the house and neighborhood through public records. They tap into property records, crime reports, zoning maps, airport noise maps, environmental records, and other documents. Pretest-posttest surveying found this exercise increased support for access even more than students who conducted a traditional audit. Relevancy helps build motivation and support for FOI. See description at http://www.spj.org/foigift.asp .
  2. Organized FOI audits
    Some professors assign organized class audits of specific agencies within the community or statewide. For example, a 2004 FOI class co-taught by Susan Ross and David Cuillier at Washington State University requested dozens of records from 20 universities in five Northwest states to find widespread noncompliance of the Clery Act (see report). Art of Access co-author Charles Davis developed an audit toolkit that can be applied by professionals and classes (http://www.spj.org/foitoolkit.asp). Also, see a good description of implementing an audit in the classroom by Terry Wimmer, now of the University of Arizona, who presented a FOI audit as an Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Great Idea for Teaching in 2002 (http://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2002.pdf, pp. 86-88). Research indicates that audits can increase student support for FOI (see Simon, J. & Sapp, D. A. (2006). Learning inside and outside the classroom: Civic journalism and the Freedom of Information Act, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 61(2)).
  3. I seek dead people
    Carol S. Lomicky of the University of Nebraska-Kearney won the 2002 Great Ideas for Teaching grand prize award at AEJMC for a FOI exercise that utilized dead people. She assigns students to go to a cemetery and find a grave. Then, using documents, students research that person. Students tap into records involving census, probate, birth, marriage, military and others. Find a description of this award-winning idea at http://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2002.pdf, pp. 53-55.

Shorter exercises

  1. Secret justice (Ch. 1 records that matter)
    This is a Great Idea for Teaching presented at AEJMC in 2002 by Kenneth C. Killebrew of University of South Florida. In this exercise, the class is divided into groups. One student is put into detention and each group is given different information about the facts of the case and asked to deliberate and find innocence or guilt. Only one group is given all the facts. The students can vote in secret on whether to charge the student. When all the groups reveal their decisions and realize they weren’t acting with all the facts they realize that information and open deliberation are needed for a fair and just society. See complete description at http://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2002.pdf, pp. 44-46.
  2. Circle the prof (Ch. 2 document state of mind)
    Write the professor’s name on the middle of the board. Now ask the class to think of all the public records that might be out there about the professor. First have them think of the different roles the professor plays, writing those around his or her name, such as “government employee,” “home owner,” “pet owner,” or “taxpayer.” Then list the records next to that role that might contain the professor. See how many records the class can come up with to circle the prof. See chapter 2 of the book for more information about this circling technique, derived by Duff Wilson and Deb Nelson.
  3. FOI issue argument (Ch. 3 on the law)
    Students get to be a FOI lawyer. Provide each student a question that a reporter, citizen or government official might have regarding whether a particular government document should be public (e.g., mayor’s text message from personal cell phone, autopsy photos, disciplinary reports against police officers). Have the student research the legality of whether the record should be made public and write a response in easy-to-understand English, not legalese, as if they are explaining it to a citizen or public official. The argument for or against it being public should be no more than 1,000 words (single-spaced), but should be well-documented, footnoted and researched. The argument must be based on the law, not on their personal opinion. Have the students look at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press open government guide, their own state statutes, case law, attorney general opinions, etc. Have them break it down by state to explain how many states make the record open and which ones closed. Have them explain how it is handled under federal FOIA. Also, have them provide examples of how the records benefit the public by being open, and the drawbacks.
  4. Hit records (Ch. 4 on finding records)
    Assign students to turn in a description of 10 public records specific to a certain area of their interest. For example, if they are interested in environmental reporting then they would find 10 public records that would be useful in covering the environment, describing the record, what’s in it, what can be done with it, and where they can get it, at the local, state or federal level (with specific Web addresses or agencies). For the purposes of this assignment, a specific report does not count as a public record. It must be a type of record, such as a pool inspection report, parking ticket, police report, or other kind of record that would be available in just about any community.
  5. FOI Webliography (Ch. 4 on finding records)
    Have the students scour the Web to produce an annotated FOI Webliography, listing at least 10 Web sites related to freedom of information, including the URL and a short paragraph summary describing useful parts of the Web site.
  6. Create-a-letter (Ch. 5 on requesting records)
    Go to the Web site www.rcfp.org or www.splc.org and find the request letter generators. Fill in the blanks and pop out letters. Demonstrating this in class in five minutes gives students confidence in working up letters on their own.
  7. FOI log analysis (Ch. 6 on overcoming denials)
    Earlier in the semester have the students request the FOI logs for various local and state agencies. Or go online to www.governmentattic.org and pull down some pdf files of federal agency FOIA logs. Break the class up into teams and give them parts of the logs. Have them code the types of requesters, records and denial rate. Discuss their conclusions for the prevalence of denials and variety of records being requested.
  8. Database ideas (Ch. 7 on electronic records)
    Go to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting database library site (http://data.nicar.org/node/61) and open up some of the databases listed. You will find samples of what they provide for journalists. Examine the fields and brainstorm potential story ideas that might be achievable from the data. Check out the pricing (many are cheaper than dinner out Friday night).
  9. Custodian chat (Ch. 8 on officials’ views)
    Invite a public records officer, or even better, a former public records officer to come in and talk with the class. Discuss how the process really works on the other side of the request. Help students understand how officials might see the request process to make them more effective.
  10. Bleachers of fury: Interactive slideshow (Ch. 9 on FOI ethics)
    For this exercise, after going through FOI law in lecture and readings, work through the issues in an interactive PowerPoint slideshow. Create a story line of mayhem at a campus football game, using photos with permission from the campus paper, athletic department or local newspaper. A player is injured and taken to the hospital – are you entitled to know who it is and extent of injuries? A protester is arrested outside the stadium – are you entitled to know the person’s name and get an incident report? Half the crowd gets sick from the nacho cheese – where do you find the vendor and recent health inspections? The bleachers collapse – are you entitled to know who built them? Incorporate issues that students discuss in groups and then as a class in deciding whether information should be public. This exercise was a Great Idea for Teaching in 2007, presented by David Cuillier, and is available in the latest GIFT book that can be ordered online from http://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2007.pdf .

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