Imagine telling a story so important that it “spreads across the country like wildfire” and has “explosive” reactions. That’s how two reporters from The Sacramento Bee describe an article from earlier this year that led to the resignation of the University of California, Davis’ chancellor.
Senior writers Sam Stanton and Diana Lambert found that the university paid consultants $175,000 “to scrub the Internet of negative online postings” about the school and its chancellor and “to improve (their) reputations” following the pepper-spraying of students by campus police.
They later discovered that the chancellor’s use of image-enhancing firms “was much more extensive than previously revealed, with the university paying out more than $407,000 to three companies to improve her image and the university’s in online posts.”
The efforts included creating a webpage in the chancellor’s name, editing her Wikipedia page, creating a blog for her and seeking ways to counteract negative newspaper stories by offering up opinion pieces to a Sacramento business magazine that “will beat out negative Sacramento Bee articles.”
A former aide told investigators that the chancellor repeatedly asked him, “Why can’t you get me off the Google?” the newspaper reported.
How did the reporters discover this information? A helpful tip from a reader and tireless public records requests. I asked Sam and Diana to tell me how the story came together and what lessons they can share with other reporters hoping to do similar investigative work. Below is an edited version of our interview, which was conducted over email.
How did people react to your story?
Stanton: The reaction was explosive. The story and the video went worldwide the first night. I woke up at 2 a.m. and began tracking it on our Chartbeat.com account and could see it growing and growing and growing. Twitter, especially, took over after the first day. The story was still ranking at the top of our views a week later.
Lambert: Not only did the story spread across the country like wildfire, my email was filled daily with tips and comments on the stories.
How did the story come about, and what records did you request?
Stanton: Diana began breaking stories about Chancellor Linda Katehi's participation on corporate boards in early March, and I was asked to help, partly because I had covered the pepper spray incident in 2011 and the resulting fallout. I had heard rumblings about UC Davis launching an effort to scrub that incident from the internet, and I began reaching out to sources who might be able to help me. Eventually, I got the name of one of the companies and filed under the California Public Records Act for all contracts, emails, payments etc.
What response did you get from the university after making your records request? Were they helpful?
Stanton: The initial response was not helpful at all. At one point, the university said they could not search for emails unless I provided the domain from which they emanated (Gmail.com, for instance). They also indicated any responses would take weeks. I pushed back, and eventually Diana and I wrote a story about their lack of responsiveness. Editor Joyce Terhaar also wrote a column about it.
Lambert: The university has almost always taken the full 10 days just to tell us the information would come in a month, even six weeks. They have failed to meet their own deadlines on numerous occasions. Our public records requests have included everything from corporate contracts with the university, staff travel expense records to budget information and requests for emails.
Were you surprised by what was in the records?
Stanton: I had been told by sources generally what to expect, but I was surprised by some of the language in the contracts and that they specified the reputation repair was not just for the university but for the chancellor as well.
What advice do you have for other journalists who want to request similar records from their local university?
Stanton: Get some details first, something specific you can ask for — the name of a company, the name of an individual, a range of dates.
Do you often file public records requests on your beat?
Lambert: I file quite a few PRAs (California Public Records Act requests) and FOIAs as an education reporter. I always try to get the information without a public records request first because they take longer and require more work from the institution, but if I can't get the information I need I file.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Stanton: Don't give up if they don't give you your records. Once people hear you're looking for something, you'll be amazed how helpful sources can become.
Have you done an interesting story using public records or know of a good one by someone else? I’d love to hear about it. Tweet me @RecordsGeek.