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San Diego journalists discuss public records, access

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San Diego journalists discuss public records, access

Photo courtesy of Michael  Holley, Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Michael Holley, Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Michael Holley, Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Michael Holley, Wikimedia Commons.

Michele Leivas, Editor

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The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) hosted its second in a yearlong series of workshops Wednesday evening at the World Resources SimCenter in downtown San Diego.

Wednesday’s installation, “Getting Public Records: Learn the best strategies and relevant laws to pry loose public records,” was hosted by San Diego SPJ President and San Diego Union-Tribune public engagement editor Matthew Hall.

Attendees listened to — and later participated in — a Q&A-style discussion between Hall and a three-person panel of professionals: CBS News 8 investigative producer David Gotfredson, San Diego Union Tribune’s watchdog reporter Jeff McDonald and Guylyn Cummins, media law attorney with Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.  Each shared tips, advice and anecdotes about their experience implementing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) while working with government agencies to obtain public records.

(For more information regarding FOIA and public records, click here).

“It’s always helpful to talk to someone instead of just filing a (public records) request,” said Gotfredson. When speaking with a clerk or city representative who sounds reluctant to speak with a reporter, he added, “it’s always good to mention, ‘I’m not quoting you; I’m getting background information.’” Speaking with a person not only speeds the process along (at times), he stated, but it is also a good way to cultivate sources for future stories.

All three panel members acknowledged that submitting public records requests can be a lengthy, drawn-out process, particularly when agencies are reluctant to supply the requested information. McDonald reminded the audience, however, that is not always the only way to find what you’re looking for: “A lot of times you can find the information you need online,” he said. “You just have to do the legwork.”

When submitting a request, McDonald advised to be as detailed as possible: request any documents that contain two or three keywords as well as a specified timeline (“Emails are a goldmine” of information, he added).

State agencies have 10 days to respond to public records requests; a two-week extension may be added if the agency deems the request extensive. If the agency determines the sought-after information is exempted information, it can, and will, deny the request. In that situation, Cummins said, “you force (the agency) to state the exemption, why (it applies) and drill down on that.”

The panel explained the next course of action would be to sue the agency for the requested information. Gotfredson pointed out, “You have to sue them or you can write a story on them, which could embarrass them into releasing the records.”

Cummins added, “Sometimes you do have to sue them and they learn their lesson.”

The workshop fell during Sunshine Week, which runs annually from March 13 to 19, and  is “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” according to its website.

The next installment of San Diego SPJ’s “Better Journalism” series, “Computer-Assisted Reporting: Explore trends and stories in June 2016 campaign contributions,”  will be held at the same location on May 17. Each workshop is free for SPJ members who are current on their dues; non-members will pay $15 per session.

More information on future workshops and speakers can be found here.

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Michele Leivas, Editor

 

Michele joined the NU Herald family in February 2016 as editor. She is a journalism major at National and plans to complete her bachelor's degree...

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San Diego journalists discuss public records, access