Sunshine Week 2014: Two new studies released

On the eve of Sunshine Week 2014, SPJ released the results from two surveys about journalists’ experience with obtaining public information. The studies were led by Dr. Carolyn S. Carlson — a communication professor from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information committee — and Megan Roy, Carlson’s graduate research assistant.

The surveys specifically document reporters’ perceptions about whether government press offices interfere with reporting.

The first survey sponsored by SPJ was of political and general assignment reporters working at the state and local level. The vast majority of reporters who took this survey said the amount of control has been increasing over the past several years and they see it only getting worse over the next few years. They agreed the current level of media control by PIOs is an impediment to providing information to the public. Download and read the complete report [PDF, 468 KB] here.

For the second survey, SPJ joined with the Education Writers Association to focus on the nation’s education reporters. Journalists indicated that public information officers often require pre-approval for interviews, decide whom reporters get to interview and often monitor interviews. Sometimes they will prohibit interviews altogether. Education writers overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that “the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.” Download and read the complete report [PDF, 417 KB] here.

Transcripts of remarks from the National Press Club’s “When Press Offices Block the Press” event [PDF]
Introduction by Kathryn Foxhall
Carolyn Carlson
SPJ President David Cuillier
Emily Richmond, EWA Public Editor

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SPJ members discuss conflicts between reporters, government flacks at National Press Club event

Linda Petersen, SPJ’s National Freedom of Information chairwoman, and former SPJ National President Carolyn Carlson participated on a panel at the National Press Club Aug. 12 on the conflicts between journalists and public affairs officers.

Carlson presented the findings of surveys she has done on attitudes of reporters and spokespeople toward each other. The surveys showed journalists found PIOs to be a barrier to getting information in many cases, while PIOs admitted to going as far as blocking news organizations they didn’t like.

Petersen pointed out that the attitudes have filtered down to the local level, with city spokespeople insisting they were the only ones journalists could speak to about such simple things as when an Easter egg hunt begins.

You can watch the event here.

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Salt Lake Tribune reporter uses web tools to let the people decide political scandal

 

Gehrke

Robert Gehrke, a politics and government reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, is using web tools to help the public understand a political scandal. (courtesy of Robert Gehrke)

It started when a businessman indicted for fraud said he lost $250,000 in a bogus deal brokered by Utah’s attorney general.

Businessman Jeremy Johnson had dozens of emails, two financial records, several photos and a 60-page transcript of a secretly recorded meeting all accusing newly-elected Attorney General John Swallow of the crime.

The Salt Lake Tribune first reported Johnson story less than a week after Swallow swore his oath of office in early January.

Since then, the political scandal has taken center stage in Utah, where 78 percent of more than 800 voters called for Swallow to resign in a June 17 Utah Voter Poll.

But readers might not know what to think if Robert Gehrke, a politics and government reporter at the Tribune, hadn’t been giving them a reporter’s-eye view of the scandal for the past eight months.

Gehrke has been working with the Tribune’s staff to share firsthand documents about the scandal online and create interactive web graphics to help readers untangle all the names, numbers and accusations.

“The problem we’ve run into with this is there are a number of different allegations made against the attorney general,” Gehrke said. “It’s hard for us as reporters to keep them straight so it’s hard for readers, too.”

Before Swallow was elected, he was allegedly told Johnson that the businessman could avoid a federal investigation of his company by paying $600,000 to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But after Johnson paid Swallow $250,000 to seal the deal, the government filed a lawsuit against him anyway.

Johnson demanded Swallow refund his money. But the attorney general hopeful allegedly refused.

Swallow denied Johnson’s allegations, along with a series of other claims about fraud, waste and power abuse that surfaced about him in the following months.

All the speculation eventually resulted in five separate investigations into Swallow’s conduct.

“It’s gotten to the point that there’s so much out there, and it’s so hard to organize that the Web graphics seemed like a good idea,” Gehrke said.

One of the Tribune’s most recent Web graphics is a chart showing the social network of the scandal. It lists the cast of characters like a Shakespearean play, so the public can keep track of who’s who and see a breakdown of the allegations.

“It helps readers hopefully understand the dynamics of this,” Gehrke said. “We can update it as needed and use it to keep readers informed about how things fit into the overall picture.”

Gehrke also helped create an interactive timeline to keep readers up-to-date with the chronology of how the scandal is transpiring.

“It’s fairly bare bones, but timelines don’t need to be anything sparkly or in-depth,” Gehrke said.

The chart and the timeline both provide links to previous stories and primary source documents Gehrke posted if readers want to know more.

Gehrke has been posting receipts, court filings, emails and audio tapes online with his stories since the scandal began.

He uses Scribd to post most of the paper records, and the Tribune’s graphics person uses YouTube to post the larger audio files with a Tribune logo.

Gehrke said he prefers whatever Web tools are the most convenient that serve his purposes. Although he’s been a reporter for more than 15 years, using such tools is something he’s had to learn to be more comfortable with over time.

Now he errs on posting all firsthand documents online to let the readers see as much information as possible.

“It’s not a space constraint; it doesn’t take that long, and I think readers appreciate it,” Gehrke said.

He didn’t think it was worth the time and effort to post firsthand documents when he was reporting on articles that died after one day. But when a story is ongoing like this one, he said it has been helpful to have an inventory of information to quickly link and reference—especially when credibility is at stake.

“In something like this where you might have parties that have differing versions of events, you can send people to reference original documents,” Gehrke said. “Then readers can make up their own minds and evaluate the claims being made on their own.”

For reporters who want to build interactive Web graphics similar to those Gehrke produced, Columbia Journalism Review suggests Infogr.am for info graphics and TimelineJS for timelines.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Virginia county supervisor questions closed meeting discussion

A Virginia county supervisor called out fellow supervisors for violating Virginia’s open government laws during a closed session performance evaluation, according to The Virginia Gazette.

Before and after the closed session on July 23, supervisors had to certify that they would only discuss issues related to the performance of a county administrator.

But the day after the closed session, James County Supervisor Jim Kennedy emailed other supervisors saying he was “uncomfortable” that they also used the meeting to discuss the issue of keeping backyard chickens.

Virginia lawmakers have been in an ongoing debate about homeowners’ rights to keep and raise chickens for eggs and food. Raising chickens in some residential areas is illegal.

Kennedy said he brought the issue up for discussion at the meeting, but he did not intend the discussion to result in policy and “pages of notes,” according to The Gazette.

“I believe we all participated in a violation of public trust, and went outside the scope of the closed session and would ask (county attorney) Leo (Rogers) for his opinion,” Kennedy said in an email.

Supervisors are not supposed to discuss any material not related to an administrator’s evaluation during a closed session. Kennedy thinks their discussion was not relevant to the evaluation. Other supervisors say it was.

“Our discussions were entirely appropriate,” Supervisor John McGlennon told The Gazette. “I would say it was entirely appropriate for the Board, in evaluating the county administrator and the county attorney, to discuss issues related to our expectations of the administrator and provide direction to county staff on what the Board is concerned about.”

Rogers told The Virginia Gazette on July 26 that he was not present during the closed session, so he cannot make an opinion on whether or not the discussion was for evaluation purposes. But Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said if the administrators certified the closed session and knowingly discussed other matters, they’re breaking the law.

“Certainly I can see why it’s difficult to stick to the topic, but it absolutely has to be done,” Rhyne told The Gazette.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.
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FOI Daily Dose: Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling; National Press Club debates practices of public affairs offices

Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling

An Illinois attorney clarified a public records ruling issued July 16 by the Fourth District Appellate Court, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The ruling said emails and text messages sent during public meetings about public business are public records.

But Peter Friedman, a Lake Bluff village attorney and a partner at Holland & Knight, clarified that the ruling does not apply to any electronic communications not pertaining to public business or those sent outside of board meetings.

“The appellate court correctly determined that private electronic communications outside the context of a board meeting are not public records under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act),” Friedman told the Tribune.

 National Press Club debating practices of federal public affairs offices

The National Press Club in Washington, DC,  is hosting a panel on Aug. 12 to debate whether federal public affairs practices are more of a hindrance or a help to reporters.

Public affairs offices typically require reporters to go through the press office to arrange interviews.

Those skeptical of the process complain that it limits who they interview. They are also frustrated that some companies require members of the communications team to be present with employees during their interview, according to the Press Club.

Other people feel public affairs professionals ensure that the press gets accurate information and a coherent message.

The debate will feature a panel of experts on both sides of the issue. The panel will be moderated by John M. Donnelly, chairman of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Committee and a senior writer with CQ Roll Call.

Panel experts include:

  • Linda Petersen: Managing editor, The Valley Journals of Salt Lake; chairwoman SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee; and president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government
  • Carolyn Carlson: Former AP reporter; past SPJ national president; assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta; and author of two surveys on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press
  • John Verrico: President-elect of the National Association of Government Communicators
  • Kathryn Foxhall: Freelance reporter who has extensively researched the issue
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FOI Update: Federal appeals court rules against reporter’s privilege in James Risen case

A federal appeals court ruled July 19 that the First Amendment does not protect reporters from being forced to testify against confidential sources suspected of sharing unauthorized information with them, according to The New York Times.

This decision against the so-called reporter’s privilege came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va. The court ruled James Risen, an author and a national security reporter for the Times, must testify against a former Central Intelligence Agency official charged with giving him classified information. Risen said he’s willing to go prison to protect his source, according to the Times.

The information was not for an article in the Times. It was for a chapter in Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War,” that portrays efforts by the CIA. under the Clinton administration to trick Iranian scientists as “reckless and botched in a way that could have helped the Iranians gain accurate information,” The Times said.

Chief Judge William Byrd Traxler Jr. justified the ruling by writing: “Clearly, Risen’s direct, firsthand account of the criminal conduct indicted by the grand jury cannot be obtained by alternative means, as Risen is without dispute the only witness who can offer this critical testimony.”

The 118-page decision comes one week after Attorney General Eric Holder announced new guidelines for leak investigations to supposedly tighten the circumstances for obtaining reporter’s records.

“It’s very disappointing that as we are making such good progress with the attorney general’s office and with Congress, in getting them to recognize the importance of a reporter’s privilege, the Fourth Circuit has taken such a big step backwards,” Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Times.

For more information about the case, read The New York Times article.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Judge dismisses North Carolina public records lawsuit for confidential settlement; Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

Judge dismisses N.C. public records lawsuit against hospital chain for confidential settlement

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit a Charlotte attorney filed against one of the nation’s largest public hospital chains for violating the North Carolina public records law, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner ruled that the hospital chain, Carolinas HealthCare System, can legally keep a confidential settlement from its 2008 lawsuit against the former Wachovia Bank (see previous post).

Since the hospital chain’s board of directors made the settlement in a closed session and kept it confidential, attorney Gary Jackson filed a public records request to inspect it and ensure it’s fair.

In a hearing last week, attorneys for Carolinas HealthCare argued that the hospital chain can legally withhold the settlement because the state’s public records laws has many holes.

But Jackson said legislators never intended the law to allow confidential settlements in lawsuits involving government agencies, so he plans to appeal Sumner’s ruling to the N.C. Court of Appeals, according to The Observer.

The Observer notes that former state Senator David Hoyle who sponsored most North Carolina public records laws, agrees with Jackson.

“The intent was that if it becomes a court case, the results of the settlement were to be made public,” Hoyle told The Observer.

Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

As Pennsylvania lawmakers weigh a series of potential changes to the state’s 5-year-old Right-to-Know law, the head of Pennsylvania’s open records agency is telling them to proceed with caution, according to NewsWorks.

The Senate is considering one piece of legislation to address problems with the state’s open records, and the House has at least 10 different proposals.

But Terry Mutchler, director of the Office of Open Records, told NewsWorks some of the changes proposed in the name of open government could deny certain populations, such as prison inmates, the right to access information and exempt information from public requests.

“While the intent is good, I have some concerns with the results,” Mutchler told NewsWorks.

But until the legislature decides to change Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, a recent Commonwealth Court decision could mean more access to information from state-related universities, according to Watchdog News.

In the case of Ryan Bagwell v. Department of Education, Bagwell, a Penn State alumnus, requested information about the Jerry Sandusky investigation, including emails, letters, reports and memos sent to then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis. The Commonwealth Court decided since the records are part of the education secretary’s job dealing with state-related universities, they should be released, Watchdog News said.

Mutchler expects the decision to have a “domino effect” on similar cases, and she expects the state to expand the Right-to-Know law for state-related universities.

“I am grateful the Legislature took its time with deciding this question, because it has to be done right, and it has to be done well, and the implications of it have to be thought through,” Mutchler told Watchdog News.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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Shield law counterpoint: ‘I opposed the federal shield then, and I oppose it now’

Like any complicated issue, the proposed shield law has its pros and cons, and not every journalist agrees it’s the best approach to protecting press rights. The Society of Professional Journalists supports transparency and encourages a robust discussion to bring the best ideas to light. Mac McKerral, former SPJ president and an associate professor of journalism at Western Kentucky University, has opposed a federal shield for a decade and explains why in this column. Members are encouraged to continue the discussion, and from this discussion we can all be better informed and heard.

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FOI Daily Dose: Louisiana’s public records victory points to larger abuses of the law

A panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge upheld a judge’s ruling that Louisiana State University is not privy to the governor’s office public records exemption, according to The Associated Press.

LSU was using the governor’s “deliberative process” exemption to hide the names of three dozen candidates in its closed-door search for a new president. They hired former University of California-Long Beach President F. King Alexander, who started in June.

The Advocate and The Times-Picayune filed lawsuits seeking names of the other candidates. But LSU board members said keeping the names quiet allowed sitting chancellors and presidents to avoid jeopardizing their current positions.

After district judge Janice Clark ruled in April that the records are public and must be released, LSU requested the 1st Circuit Court review the decision, according to the AP. The court panel on July 19 supported Clark’s ruling.

“This is very good news, and we are thrilled,” Lori Mince, an attorney for The Advocate, told The AP.

But Mike Hasten, capital bureau chief for Gannett Louisiana newspapers, said this victory for open government advocates is only one in a long list of exemption abuses. He published an editorial in The News Star on July 20 explaining the larger problem about how LSU and other agencies are wrongfully using an exemption for the governor’s office to keep sensitive material out of public view.

Governor  Bobby Jindal backed legislation four years ago that removed a blanket exemption for the governor’s office from the public records law and replaced it with a provision called “deliberative process” that exempts “any documents or other types of communication used by the governor to make a decision,” Hasten said.

Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, told The Advocate lawmakers never intended the “deliberative process” claim to be used beyond the governor’s office.

The exemption specifically protects materials “relating to the deliberative process of the governor.” It said: “The provisions of this Section shall not apply to any agency, office, or department transferred or placed within the office of the governor.”

But even so, agencies using the exemption attribute their decision to a 2004 court ruling from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal that allowed the Public Service Commission to shield some records from a legislative auditor. The Advocate said this decision had nothing to do with the public records law.

“They’re doing something outside of what it was intended to do, and that needs to be addressed,” Danahay told The Advocate.

Hasten said it’s up to the public to assert the public records law and challenge agencies when they misuse it.

“Because they have not been legally challenged on that and until a court says they can’t do it, they probably will keep doing it in violation of state law,” Hastens wrote for The News Star.

An attorney for LSU told the AP that LSU will return to Clark in state district court for her decision on the damages and attorney fees.

The AP said LSU will get its chance to appeal the decision, but it’s unclear whether they will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the issue.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Site that opens Denver checkbook should continue adding information, watchdogs say

Citizens and reporters in Denver, Colo., will no longer have to file public records requests to learn some of the ways the city spends tax dollars.

Denver city and county launched a website July 17 revealing the city’s financial reports, investments, residential- and business-property records and city-owned properties for sale, according to the Denver Post.

The site, called Transparent Denverfeatures a checkbook that will be automatically updated daily so citizens can see how the city is spending its $900 million annual budget.

“This site opens the book of city government,” Kennedy told the Post. “The goal, as the mayor indicated, is to really improve the level of trust so people can see how their tax dollars are being spent.”

Cary Kennedy, Denver’s chief financial officer, told the Post that five years of city spending data are already available, and the website has a link to the city’s annual financial report.

But some news organizations and watchdog groups say there is still critical information missing from the site.

For instance, FOX31 Denver points out that even though the website lists dollar values of expense reimbursements for officials when they travel, it does not provide specific details about what they are reimbursed for, such as airline tickets, cabs or dinners.

“I think a lot of people will say, OK you got reimbursed $1,861 for this trip, but we don’t know if you went to the Four Seasons for dinner. We don’t know if you had wine on the taxpayers dime. So how can we improve the system? So, it’s more transparent?,” investigative reporter Tak Landrock told FOX31 Denver.

FOX31 also pointed out that the website shows the city spent $1.6 million dollars using credit cards, but it does not show what they purchased with the cards.

Kennedy told FOX31 Denver that posting credit card statements could “boggle down the webpage,” but taxpayers who have questions can email the city for more information.

Employee payroll is also missing from the site, but Wil Alston, director of communications for the finance department, told the Post that taxpayers can access this information through Colorado open records requests.

Kennedy said the website will continue developing to make numbers more accessible.

Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch, a non-profit government accountability group, told FOX31 the website is a good start, but leaders should continue make information more available.

“I think you can always get more web capacity. The computers are getting more powerful and people’s internet speeds are getting better,” Toro said. “Technology is very good in this area to solve those problems.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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