Government transparency is crucial to democracy. It’s important that the public know what their leaders and governing bodies are up to. And when it comes to holding public figures accountable, journalists play a key role! Reporters have uncovered lots of surprising and important information using public records — from the Watergate scandal to former President Trump’s tax returns. That’s why investigative reporter and public records wizard Matt Drange joined YR Media to share tips for navigating the (now mostly virtual) piles of records available to journalists. In this curriculum toolkit you will:
- introduce students to public records requests
- discuss when and why public records requests are important for investigative journalism and advocacy research
- brainstorm story ideas where public records requests would be needed or would help strengthen the story
- move into action submitting public records requests that could be used to pitch investigative journalism stories or for future research projects!
COMMUNITY CONNECTION ICEBREAKER
Read the excerpt below from the California Public Records Act and have students respond to it:
“Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.– California Public Records Act, 2007
*Optional prompts for discussion:
- What do you think is meant by the statement: “openness in government is essential to the functioning of democracy”?
- Do you agree with the idea? Why or why not?
- How do you think “openness in government” is achieved?
ACTIVITY 1: GETTING TO KNOW PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTS & GROUP BRAINSTORM
Step One: Know Your Records
Discuss what is considered a public record: The phrase public records might conjure images of long legal documents, but it actually includes so much more. Text messages, video clips, audio memos, photos, and emails can all be considered a part of the public record, so long as they relate to conducting of the public’s business.
Here are some examples of public records that sparked real investigations:
- Email sent to staff members at Tesla telling them to disregard local shelter-in-place orders
- Deed to the “Real World” mansion purchased by billionaire Peter Thiel
- Concealed-carry gun permit issued to a public transportation director in California
Step Two: Get Entitled
Discuss who is entitled to make a public records request: Acting entitled might not be a great way to approach your relationships… but it’s an excellent way to approach public records. Remember: you own these records already! As a member of the public, it’s your legal right to access them. Government agencies are even obligated to help you. Don’t forget to invoke this requirement in your written request for records, too.
Step Three: Group Brainstorm
Discuss* why you may want to make a public records request:
- Reflecting on the cases shared above in step one, are there any other examples that you can think of where a public records request was pivotal to the news story?
- Why would a public records request strengthen your story or research?
- What are some topics/research/investigative journalism stories that you think would benefit from public records requests?
- First provide time (5 mins) for students to think and free write ideas
- Then have students jot down their ideas or create a collaborative google doc to record ideas (this makes the process more interactive and students can live-share ideas as they think of them and then class can discuss) in preparation for activity 2 below, where they will work on making a public records request for their story ideas
- Discuss & share out!
ACTIVITY 2: GETTING TO WORK MAKING A PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST
Step One: File Your Request
This letter generator from the Student Press Law Center makes it easy to compose your request. Just fill out the form with details about what you’re requesting and who you’re requesting it from. Then, you’ll receive a letter with all the legal-speak needed to communicate your request. (You can also call the handy Legal Hotline for advice from an actual human.)
Another tip for making your request easy to fulfill: Keep it short. Don’t ask for every email someone has ever sent. Try to limit your request to a particularly relevant time (August 5 - 7, 2020) or subject (uranium imports) that will be easy for records workers to collect.
Examples from YR Media Youth Journalists
Earlier this year, YR Media conducted an ambitious investigation into universities' widespread use of virtual proctoring software during the pandemic. With students learning remotely, administrators and faculty sought to prevent and catch cheating. But students across the country have raised serious concerns about the harmful effects of what they experience as an overlay of surveillance on their everyday education. Through public campaigns, campus-based organizing, social media posts and other means, students report that these digital tools can damage: mental health, trust in the learning environment, equity as a result of bias in artificial intelligence, and privacy rights. The report on our investigation is: "Surveillance U: Has Virtual Proctoring Gone Too Far?" And here are the public records requests that were key to our fact-finding:
Step Two: Mark Your Calendar
Now, it’s time to wait. Federal records requests demand a reply within 10 days. State laws vary but often have similar timelines. So mark your calendar and don’t be shy about following up. Be pleasant but persistent — pester your contact daily if needed! Don’t let them forget about you or the law.
What if your request is denied? Ask why. Politely, but firmly, ask for clarification until you understand the details of any argument for denying your request. Then make another visit to that Legal Hotline for advice on what to do next.
Step Three: Google It
Some public records are freely available online. Try typing what you’re looking for into a search engine with “.pdf” or “.xlsx” (two common public record file types). You might be surprised by the results!
You can also join the online community of journalists examining public records. Investigative journalist and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) aficionado Jason Leopold started the weekly #foiafriday hashtag as a source for help and encouragement on Twitter.
Other Helpful Resources:
- FOIA Machine can help you navigate and manage federal record requests.
- The Open Government Guide has information about public record law in all 50 states.
- The First Amendment Coalition is a source of additional tips and on-call legal advice.
DEBRIEF AS A CLASS
- Did anything surprise you about this activity?
- How did you feel about making the public records request?
- Would you like to continue this activity and write up an investigative journalism story using your public records request?
A NOTE OF THANKS
Thanks to Francesca Fenzi, YR Media Journalism Instructor, and Nimah Gobir, Research Consultant, for developing this lesson. Monica Clark, PhD, Teach YR Director, edited this toolkit, and special thanks to Lauren Rascoe, Teach YR Project Manager, for organizing the workshop with Matt Drange on which it was based.
INVITATION FOR ACTION & CONNECTION
Teachers, are you excited about the work your students created? As always, if your students love what they created please invite them to join YR Media’s community and pitch their pieces to our editors. And teachers, sign up here to receive email updates when new curriculum tools are published and become a member of our growing teacher network!