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Be relentless and read the fine print


by Stan Zoller, MJE
Sometime in its advertising history, Hewlett-Packard, now known simply as H-P because people were in too much of a hurry to spell the entire name out, had a campaign that touted its corporate innovation.

Quite simply, all it said was “At Hewlett-Packard, we never stop saying ‘What If. “

The concept was their product development staffs were always looking for ways to improve technology by taking chances and asking what would happen ‘if’ they did something different.

The approach might also work well for journalists in their dogged pursuits of accurate and verifiable information.

At the 2009 JEA convention in Washington, D.C., keynote speaker Jackie Spinner, then a Washington Post reporter, said “the problem with the American media is that it’s more concerned about getting it first than getting it right.”

The unfortunate reality in many cases that is still the case. It’s not unusual for a news organization to post information on social media and within minutes, post an update that corrects a previous post.

An obvious way to avoid this is to fact check and verify before posting a story. However, to really add to the basic information, follow H-P’s lead and ask “what if” about your information.  In other words, go beyond the basic information at hand.

This can be true when using public records. Despite the fact public agencies are required to adhere to open meetings laws, some will go out of their way to avoid meeting the full intent of the law.  School districts seem to be the biggest culprits of this.

Effective deconstruction of materials received through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request entails that journalists – whether students or professional – understand the breadth of their state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as well as the appeal process.

I filed two recent FOI requests using Illinois’ FOIA and have found by asking “what if” I have been able to garner additional information.

The first case involves a school district that heavily redacted information without sufficient explanation for the redaction.  A second FOI request resulted in a similar situation. Rather than accept the district’s response, I filed for a review with the Pubic Access Counselor (PAC) in the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

They agreed to investigate my query and are in the process of weighing the district’s response.  However, the district’s response about the confiscation of the student newspaper dropped more than a subtle hint that the issue was not, in fact, a journalism situation, but likely a personnel and/or personality conflict.

The district’s response also touted student confidentiality, something that was not part of my original two FOI requests. What the district seems to have done was fine-tooth combed the allowable exemptions allowed by the Illinois FOIA. Working with community advocacy attorneys, I thought an additional explanation was due, which led to the filing with the Attorney General’s PAC. Quite simply, it was a matter of asking “what if.”

Another situation, which unfolded last week, involved the use of the FOIA to find out why a village trustee in my hometown was trying to gauge interest in a proposed bill that would allow recreational use of marijuana in Illinois. By gathering emails on the topic, I was able to determine that he had not been transparent in his social media posts, as well as phone calls and emails to me.

This was revealed in a blog I posted, which drew swift reaction, including one from an attorney who said the village had violated the Illinois FOIA by providing me with information that should have been withheld because of the exemptions in the FOIA.

Undaunted, I checked with attorneys who told me that I was right (always a good feeling) and that exemptions are voluntary.  I posted that information, to which he responded, “that’s right.”

As Caesar allegedly said, “Veni, vidi, vici” – I came, I saw, I conquered. While conquering may seem a bit overstated, the bottom line is by utilizing resources and understanding the nuances of the law, I was able to (at least hopefully) protect the public’s right to know.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. Using the FOIA or asking for support from the SPLC or local advocacy attorneys may rattle your administration, but as journalism educators we have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure our student journalists seek the truth and report it using the legal and ethical tools available.

Student journalists need to understand the ramifications of under reporting as well as the rewards of not just getting it first, but also getting it right.

Which in many cases means not only using resources available to them, but also learning to ask, ‘what if?”

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