Integrating FOI in a college reporting course

Giving students a thorough grounding in accessing public records is feasible even in a compressed reporting course where time is short and the topics list long (interviewing, writing, covering meetings, etc.). It can be done! The Art of Access can actually clear some time for you to cover other topics. Below we list a schedule to cover access across nine weeks, suitable for quarters or semesters, and able to be incorporated in the other topics of a reporting course. See the teaching exercises in the next section.

1. Mixture: Readings and Hands-on Activities

A lot of professors take a class period or week to cover access to public records through lecture. It’s difficult to cover everything students need to know in a short period, and lecture can send students to sleep, so instead we simply assign the readings for the semester and then put them to work with hands-on activities. Class time can then be used for engaging discussions about students’ travails in gathering documents and reporting their stories. We think students learn best by doing. The chapters are short and easy to read so they can be integrated into the readings of another reporting textbook. Also, it’s great to assign high-impact document-based news stories to get students talking.

2. Session Team Project

We encourage professors to incorporate a team project in a reporting course to give students hands-on experience in requesting public records. The projects span the course of the semester so they can be completed in addition to stories and other assignments. Some examples of session-long team projects, described below, include:

  • Dream house: Students gather public records about a house for sale
  • FOI audits: Students request records and report how agencies  respond
  • I seek dead people: Students background individuals buried in a local cemetery.

3. Quick class exercises

In addition to readings and the team project, it’s easy to incorporate quick in-class exercises to help students grasp the topic. We list some of those in the next session, as well as visual aids and videos to break up the lectures.

4. Check out Secrets of the Scoop

A great new resource for integrating FOI into courses is an online course module developed by Florida journalist Joe Adams. Joe went to a lot of work to create a classroom program that is well-received by students. Secrets of the Scoop has class exercises, more than 130 public records examples, handouts, online pop quizzes, videos, etc. The national version will be available fall 2011.

5. Assign the classic: The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook

Every journalism student should have a copy of The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, by Brant Houston (fifth edition). Many of the chapters cover the basics of following the paper trail, primary documents and the investigation into different areas (transportation, health, environment, etc.).

Sample Schedule

Reading assignment                                  Class activity (See descriptions)

Week 1            Ch. 1: Records that matter                    Secret justice activity

Week 2            Ch. 2: Document state of mind            Circle the prof

Week 3            Ch. 3 Learning the law                           FOI issue argument

Week 4            Ch. 4: Finding records                            Hit records

Week 5            Ch. 5: Requesting records                     Create-a-letter

Week 6            Ch. 6: Overcoming denials                    FOI log analysis

Week 7            Ch. 7: Dealing with data                         Database ideas

Week 8            Ch. 8: Officials’ perspectives                 Custodian chat

Week 9            Ch. 9: Ethics and writing                         Bleachers of fury slide show

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