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How the School of Journalism helped with the 2014 public records audit

by Robert Stewart, Ph.D., Director; Professor

Open record laws play a vital role in allowing journalists to serve the public by shedding light on government activities. The problem is, those laws aren’t always observed by the very government offices that journalists are trying to cover. Periodically, news organizations conduct “audits” to ascertain the degree to which open record laws are (or are not) being obeyed.

Read the results of the audit: Compliance in releasing Ohio public records better, but not perfect (Columbus Dispatch, June 11, 2014)

This past October, Ohio Newspaper Association (ONA) Executive Director Dennis Hetzel emailed our Scripps Howard Visiting Professional, Andy Alexander, about plans for a statewide open records audit. The Ohio Coalition for Open Government, of which ONA is a part, had conducted an audit a decade earlier. It was time for a followup, and Hetzel wanted Andy to take on the role of coordinator.

Andy has long been familiar with such efforts, having helped launch the annual “Sunshine Week” in 2005 for the American Society of News Editors (ASNE).

Andy put together a small coordinating committee consisting of Dennis and several Ohio news executives:

Christine Merritt, President of the Ohio Association of Broadcasters (OAB)

Ben Marrison, Editor of The Columbus Dispatch

Teri Hayt, Executive Editor of GateHouse Ohio Newspapers (Canton Repository and others)

Several faculty members, including Andy, Bill Reader, Aimee Edmondson, and myself, volunteered to work on the audit. Bill had helped with the previous statewide audit and also is an authority on Ohio’s open records laws. He agreed to write up the audit questions and handle much of the training of journalists from throughout the state who would actually request the records. Aimee’s expertise in open records laws and data-driven journalism allowed her to take the lead in crunching and analyzing data from the audit. Before all was said and done, Bill and Aimee had played indispensable roles.

The coordinating committee met in the school’s Schoonover Center conference room back in mid-January, just as students were starting up Spring Semester. At that meeting the team established a timeline for the project and assigned tasks. The faculty volunteers noted above took on key roles:

1. Writing the Script. A key to the audit’s success was not just coming up with the list of documents to be requested, but coming up with precise wording for how to request those documents. It was critically important that all of our journalist auditors ask for documents in exactly the same way, so that public officials could not later claim that the wording of our requests was imprecise. Bill Reader took the lead, coming up with a script for requests that were made in person and electronically (via email).

The records being sought were, for the most part, the same ones that had been requested a decade earlier. But we added a new online category for records being sought electronically. Once Bill had come up with the script for records requests, it was vetted by a team of leading media attorneys who are experts in Ohio public records law. They made tweaks, so that the records we would be seeking – and the way we would be requesting them – would be bulletproof. That is, they would unquestionably be available to the public under Ohio law, and the wording of our requests would ensure that there was no confusion about what we were seeking.

2. Assembling the Auditing Team. This was largely Andy’s role. Working through the ONA and OAB, auditors were enlisted to request documents in each of the state’s 88 counties. But with one hitch: the journalists needed to make their requests in counties where they were not known.

This was to ensure that public officials wouldn’t give special treatment to someone they knew to be a reporter. Rather, we wanted each auditor to have an experience similar to that of an average citizen who might request a public record. Thus, journalists located in one county were typically assigned to seek records from government offices in an adjacent county.

3. Training. Faculty volunteers in the school produced a training video – with several faculty in starring roles – to show auditors how to request records and also how to respond in the event that they encountered roadblocks. For example, how should they respond if a public official demanded to know why they wanted a record (note: the law doesn’t require citizens to disclose why they seek a record, so auditors were told to politely decline to say why they wanted a document).

Working with ONA, Bill helped to lead hour-long Webinars that were mandatory for each auditor. Every participating journalist and his/her news organization was admonished to keep the audit a secret. We didn’t want public officials to have advance notice for fear they would communicate among themselves and be on their best behavior when records requests were made.

4. Data Crunching. The surprise audit was conducted over several days beginning April 21. In most cases, the requests were completed within a few days. Auditors submitted their findings electronically. Then it was up to Aimee, working with Bill and with an assist from another faculty member, Hans Meyer, to crunch the data. All data was shared with news organizations throughout the state, so they could start producing localized stories.

Aimee also worked with Mark Wert, a computer assisted reporting staffer with the Cincinnati Enquirer. He and colleagues at the Enquirer turned the data into an interactive graphic in which readers could have their computer cursor roll over any county in the state and instantly get a snapshot of their level of compliance with the records request.

Beginning about a month ago, Ohio news organizations were informed that all of the audit findings would be released after midnight on June 11. The package moved under the logo: “Ohio: Open for Inspection?” The Associated Press moved a package of stories/graphics for print and broadcast outlets. AP wrote the mainbar. Individual news organizations contributed sidebars. For example, Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow, who has a blog devoted to freedom of information issues, wrote a helpful How To guide for readers wishing to make a public records request.

So, a shout out to the several colleagues in the school who contributed to this very important, even essential cause. Bottom line: Ohio’s citizens are better off when news organizations can count on government officials to comply with the open records laws.

June 11, 2014

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