Holding government accountable with public records reporting

School of Journalism offers a one-credit course to train students on the Freedom of Information Act

"Whose Docs? Our Docs!" will take place during three weeks of the fall semester.

A table with an iPad, files and a notebook sitting on it.

Signed into law in 1966 by United States President Lyndon Johnson, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted to ensure government transparency. That need to hold government accountable is as important today as it was when the act was implemented.

“I think keeping government accountable to the public has always been important. Who’s spending public money on what? Whose voices are included or excluded?” Patrick File, Reynolds School of Journalism assistant professor of media law, said. “But I think the current political climate may have clarified for average citizens and students how much we need concrete facts and data when ‘alternative facts’ are presented by government officials at all levels.”

“Freedom of Information Act and related requests can help a researcher obtain data sets that can reveal societal trends and patterns. Filing public records requests are now as important a skill for journalists as writing, interviewing, photography, coding or data visualization,” Dave Maass, Reynolds School visiting professor of media technology and senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said.

Reporters and citizens rely on FOIA and state open records laws to acquire information not freely shared by government agencies or officials.

“In the modern age, almost everything that happens in the government leaves a paper trail---and these documents belong to the people,” Maass said. “Government officials aren't required to answer your questions, but they are required to respond to your request for government documents.”

So how do reporters and citizens go about making requests for public records and how do they know what information is considered public?

This fall, the Reynolds School in partnership with the EFF will offer a one-credit course to help students across the University Nevada, Reno, campus answer these questions and build their own record-seeking skills. File and Maass will co-teach the course.

“Whose Docs? Our Docs! Using Public Records Laws for Accountability Reporting” will be taught over three weeks during the fall semester: September 16 and 17; October 21 and 22; and November 18 and 19. The course is open to all undergraduate and graduate-level students, including those studying journalism, criminal justice and political science.

In the course, students will develop their reporting skills using state and federal public records laws, including FOIA. They will also propose a project that relies on public records, learn how to file requests for those records and use the information they gather to report on an issue touching on government accountability. Students will also receive an account with Muckrock, a powerful online tool used to file, manage and track public records requests.

“If you're the type of person who gets hooked on online shopping or gets a thrill out of unwrapping birthday presents, then you'll love this course. There's nothing like finding a fat envelope full of records in your mailbox or a big dataset in your email,” Maass said. “Students will learn that public records can be useful in all matters of journalism, whether reporting on criminal justice, business or even entertainment.”

The skills learned in this course will also help students to identify concerns at the local level.

“Public records reporting can open doors to all kinds of ground-level issues for everyday people, touching on things like access to basic services and justice issues in the exercise of government power and authority. It’s empowering to learn about and to learn how to make a difference,” File said.

According to Maass, students should feel comfortable enough with requesting and using public records once they complete the course that they mention the skill when seeking future employment.

“I want students to not only learn techniques for filing public records requests but to gain confidence in using this accountability tool as a routine part of their reporting. They should think of this not only has a class but practical experience that they can list on their resumes as they apply for jobs after school,” Maass said.

Interested students can register for “Whose Docs? Our Docs!” by searching for JOUR 490/690B.5716 on MyNevada before September 16.

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