Articles about "Sunshine Week"


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Public Records Geek will engage in tug-of-war, when necessary

In her first newspaper job with The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Md., Kelly Hinchcliffe got a call that the school district called a news conference.

Why? she asked many times, but no one explained.

So when Hinchcliffe showed up and saw a stack of press releases on the table, she grabbed one and sat down.

A public information officer rushed over and said she couldn’t have the release until after the press conference.

“I said, well, it becomes a public record when it’s created, not when you say you want to hand it to me,” Hinchcliffe told the woman.

A tug-of-war over that press release followed, “and I’m telling her, the public records law says…” Hinchcliffe said in a phone interview with Poynter. Read more

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As government tightens access, residents can’t find out time for Easter egg hunt

Editor’s Note: March 16 to 22 marks Sunshine Week, the annual effort by media organizations to highlight the vital importance of transparency and openness in a robust democracy. The following is an editorial from Angela Greiling Keane, 2013 National Press Club president, and David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

When the Valley Journals of Riverton, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, wanted to know the time of the town’s 2012 Easter egg hunt, they couldn’t find out. The city barred the parks official from speaking to reporters without permission, and nothing, not even the Second Coming, would pry that information loose.

What Valley Journals Managing Editor Linda Petersen experienced is unfortunately all too common – and becoming more so – in Utah, Washington, D.C., and other government shops across the country. Read more

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Obama administration denied, censored more FOIA requests in 2013 than it approved

Associated Press | National Security Archive

The Obama Administration cited national security when withholding information from FOIA requests more than 8,000 times in 2013, the Associated Press reports. That’s a “57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times,” Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum write.

The overall number of requests to which the government replied was up 2 percent, but government figures show “the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records,” they write. Sometimes the government told AP it just couldn’t find information:

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, whose top official has testified to Congress repeatedly about NSA surveillance programs disclosed by contractor Edward Snowden, told the AP it couldn’t find any records or emails in its offices asking other federal agencies to be on the lookout for journalists to whom Snowden provided classified materials. British intelligence authorities had detained one reporter’s partner for nine hours at Heathrow airport and questioned him under terrorism laws. DNI James Clapper has at least twice publicly described the reporters as “accomplices” to Snowden, who is charged under the U.S. Espionage Act and faces up to 30 years in prison.

Attorney General Eric Holder “strongly” encouraged federal agencies “to make discretionary disclosures of information.” And yet the U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t updated its FOIA guidelines since 2003, George Washington University’s National Security Archive found in an audit.

The justice department has plenty of company in adopting a “glacial” approach to FOIA regulations: “Nearly half (50 out of 101) of all federal agencies have still not updated their Freedom of Information Act regulations to comply with Congress’s 2007 FOIA amendments, and even more agencies (55 of 101) have FOIA regulations that predate and ignore President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s 2009 guidance for a “presumption of disclosure,” according to the new National Security Archive FOIA Audit released today to mark Sunshine Week,” its most recent report says. Read more

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How to use FOIA laws to find stories, deepen sourcing

To mark Sunshine Week, March 16-22, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explains how journalists can use information access laws to develop stories in the public interest. This post is written by Emily Grannis, the Jack Nelson FOI Legal Fellow at the RCFP.

Freedom of information laws are invaluable resources to reporters covering any beat. The laws provide access to a wide range of government documents, from budgets to emails, and contracts to crime reports.

There are two ways to incorporate freedom of information materials into your reporting: start with the documents or start with the story.

When you start with the documents, think about which government records might be interesting to see or might contain information that will build a story. Then request them.

Starting with the story can push your coverage to new insights. Think about how the documents can beef up your story. Public records are great sources and are always on the record. Having the records when you start interviewing human sources also gives you better ammunition and makes your story stronger overall.

Documents received from FOI requests have led to hundreds of important stories, including revelations that the federal government turned down millions in international aid after Hurricane Katrina; a troubling lack of transparency about Medicare inspections of health care facilities; trends in thefts by TSA agents at airports; and the FBI’s practice of allowing informants to break the law.

As helpful as FOI laws can be in these types of stories, the process of requesting records can also be tedious and frustrating. Denials are common, and often government agencies fail to respond in a timely fashion. When that happens, it is important to follow up with the agency.

When an agency fails to respond at all, first reach out informally to check on the status of your request. Call or email – or do both –to initiate a dialogue with the agency. At this stage, it is also useful to know your state’s law on required response times for FOI requests. States incorporate those rules with varying levels of specificity, but it can be helpful to remind an agency of its statutory obligations.

If the agency continues to be unresponsive or denies your FOI request, the next step is an administrative appeal, if that is available. All federal agencies have administrative appeal procedures but most states do not. If you can appeal to the agency or to your state attorney general, be sure to follow the procedure carefully. It is your best chance at finding a resolution while avoiding court, but it will also position you better for litigation if that becomes necessary.

If your efforts at informal discussions and formal administrative appeals fail, the last recourse is to sue the government for the records – an expensive, time-consuming and by-no-means-guaranteed-successful last resort.

Despite the sometimes difficult process, making FOI requests is still worthwhile. The FOI process can open new lines of communication between agencies and the media, it can be the catalyst for crucial revelations and, ultimately, it can lead to a better-informed public. Records requests can also provide the basis for engaging multimedia packages and graphics to more thoroughly explain issues.

To keep a spotlight on FOI, for better or worse, it is important to include the records requests made for your stories and whether those requests were successful. As the ultimate watchdog of government officials, the public needs to know whether agencies are complying with records requests or whether reform – legislative or elective – is needed, and whether the system is working.

Freedom of information laws are critical resources to journalists and should be used and cited as often as possible in your reporting.

Related training: Freedom of Information Read more

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Ohio governor quickly reverses ban on cameras, audio recorders at budget briefing

Dayton Daily News
Gov. John Kasich‘s spokeswoman said earlier today that journalists could bring only pens, notepads and tape recorders to the budget briefing; the audio couldn’t be used for anything but checking accuracy, she said. The edict was reversed after news organizations protested. Read more

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Plain Dealer documents how slow Cleveland City Hall is to respond to records requests

Cleveland Plain Dealer
On Feb. 2, the paper asked City Hall for records that track public-records requests. It’s still trying to get all the information. “In Cleveland, obtaining records in what should be a routine process can instead be a frustrating and cumbersome experience,” writes Rachel Dissell. Read more

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