Just got done speaking to about 15 high school students about public records as part of a journalism workshop put on by our sports editor, Chris Otto.
Before I started I asked if anyone had any questions — and the question they had ended up driving much of my talk.*
What type of records do we keep and use at the paper? How available to the public are they? How do we (the paper) make them available? (Answer here.) Where do we get them? After we use them for a story, what do we do with them? (See above answer). What are our parameters for privacy when using public records in our reporting?
I thought those were some pretty good questions, for a couple of reasons: One, the inquisitiveness about how public records journalism is done. Two, the subtext of some of the questions: That public records are something available to media but not necessarily to others.
So I spent a chunk of time talking about how these records are not public under some deal between the media and government agencies. They’re public, period. Any governmental agency has records you can look at, and it’s not only reporters that use them. Just this morning, I told them, a woman called wanting to know if OSHA had fined a company for an accident that occurred there, because her son was starting a business and wanted to know how to avoid making the same mistakes.
I talked about why transparency is important, what’s new about Pennsylvania’s open records law and why it matters, and about the need to keep fighting for open records so the public’s right to look into government’s business won’t fade away. And about how, if use of information in public documents raises a privacy concern, we address those ethical issues before publishing.
They asked some other questions along the way. I was pretty encouraged that a group of high schoolers, with lunchtime looming, was for the most part attentive and engaged. Maybe somewhere in that room was a budding open-records advocate.
Hopefully I’ll be able to work with more students in the future. Is anyone out there working with students on awareness of/advocacy for open records? I’m interested to know who’s doing what.