RICHMOND – An expert in freedom of information offered tips to dig up documents and feed great stories to the newsroom during the Access Across America II Tour Thursday, July 12. The visit by Charles Davis, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, was hosted by the Virginia Pro Chapter SPJ in downtown Richmond.
A”document state of mind” can be more fun and fruitful than working other types of stories, Davis told a group of about 20 local reporters. He said starting FOIA Friday, or setting aside another part of your workweek to focus on filing and following up on document requests, can help keep you in the mindset.
“Think like they think and reverse engineer,” Davis said of information officers. “I love bureaucrats. They’re the key to reporting” because they create and maintain loads of records and data for journalists to break down and mine for stories.
For a reporter on a municipal beat, simply comparing the city or county budget across two more more years can yield stories. Why did the public works budget get slashed? What the heck did the police department buy? In one case, Davis said, a sheriff was happy to brag about purchasing several massive Humvee trucks.
Davis said the people want to know about conditions in their own environment.
“They know these conditions exist. They live there,” he said, and data can help build the story about the pollution, crime or other issue in the community.
When asked about access issues, Davis said to compare notes with other reporters.
“A lot of access problems in your backyard are not the problems 30 minutes up the road,” he said. He told journalists to create news value around secrecy, since folks will want to know why public officials aren’t disclosing information. Test the waters by asking for information without a formal FOIA request. Also, do your homework and know precisely what you need, Davis said. Once he saved time and money by requesting copies of a two-page “memorandum of understanding” document in lieu of hundreds of hefty vehicle leases.
Davis said easy hits driven by data include local restaurant inspections – especially local school cafeterias- and gas station weights and measures inspections that determine if a station is skimping customers one gallon at a time. Literally anything that is inspected by a government body can yield a story.
Davis was SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee chair for five years and is co-author of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.”
He is a winner of SPJ’s Sunshine Award and was named the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Teacher of the Year. Before academia, he worked for newspapers and as a national correspondent for Lafferty Publications, a Dublin-based news wire service for financial publications.
Funded by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and The Associated Press, Access Across America II is a follow-up to the successful 2010 trip undertaken by SPJ’s David Cuillier. During a 45-day trip, he talked with 1,009 people during 56 sessions in 32 states.