Journalists often come across documents but miss the information these documents hold. What looks like an innocuous piece of paper might hold valuable information. Here are some things to look for in any document you get.
- Actuality: A document might show that something important actually did happen.
- Part of a pattern: You might have an email or report that shows the occurrence of one little thing. Maybe it was a temporary closure of a bridge. Maybe it was a 911 call to police from a motel. But each of these is an actuality. It is a record of something that actually happened. If you can find more of these seemingly innocuous events, you can establish a pattern of something more serious like an unsafe bridge or families forced to live in dangerous places because of a lack of public housing.
- Human sources: Documents sometimes name the collector of data or the person in whose hands the data ultimately goes. A document’s only value might be in the name and contact person of someone worth talking to. That’s valuable.
- Dots that can be connected: If you have a budget that shows cuts to property and maintenance departments documents that show deferred maintenance needs that have risen over time, and a long backlog of repair work orders you have a picture of a university that has balanced its books at the risk of building safety.
- Quantifications: Documents might show how often a problem has occurred or how bad the problem is.
- Timeline: It migt be that the only useful thing you find in a document is when something occurred. But that might help you establish history and show how one action or lack of action led to a problem.
The easiest public records request to do is to find out what other folks request
All public agencies must keep a “log” of public records requests. That’s a listing of each request, who r
Some public agencies, like the University of Oregon, post their public records logs online.
equested it, and the outcome of that request — whether it was granted or denied or is pending.
You can ask for that log.
Most public records requests are not made by journalists. They are made by lawyers on behalf of people suing or thinking about suing someone. So the results of these requests might not make it into any newspapers or websites.
What you can find:
Story ideas. If you find multiple requests for the same information, that might indicate a hot issue you should look into. Or you might learn that someone is asking about something you never knew the school was involved in.
A public agency needs to release information to you immediately if it has already compiled and released it to someone else under the public records act.
Before filing a request for your school’s public records log, try Googling it. Some public agencies post their logs online.
Summer is a great time to practice some investigative reporting skills.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll lay out a series of tasks you can do so that when you return to school in the fall, you’ll be all set to form your I-Team and get going.
Summer skills task #1
Train yourself to find investigative story ideas. Read your local newspaper’s website
daily. Find a story about some kind of problem. It might be a breaking news story. It might be a comment from someone in a write up of a city council meeting. Create a chart. In one column write a list of questions you have from what you read that the reporter failed to ask. In the other column come up with one person or place that might have the answer to that question.
To give yourself bonus points, shoot out a public records request for information about that problem.