By: David Noack
A unique cooperative project by seven Indiana newspapers documents
how public officials systematically violate the law
AN INVESTIGATION BY seven Indiana newspapers has found that government officials regularly violate the state’s open records law by refusing to turn over public documents to citizens.
The unprecedented collaborative effort, which involved newspapers around the state, dispatched a small army of reporters and interns to request records in all of Indiana’s 92 counties.
The project documented that county sheriffs’ departments were most likely to violate the sunshine law ? with 71.1% denying access to crime reports and 54% denying access to crime logs. Public school districts had the best compliance ? with nearly 86% granting access to school board minutes.
Conducted over a nine-month period, the open records “audit” resulted in a series of stories in participating newspapers in February. Each paper packaged and promoted the stories differently, with such headlines as “State of Secrecy, A Ground Breaking Investigation by Seven Major Indiana Newspapers,” or “Open Records, Closed Doors.” The articles are also available on the newspapers’ Web sites.
Three dozen reporters, editors
About three dozen reporters and editors worked on the project, which has sparked a public debate about how to ensure public access to public records and how to make local government officials comply with the law.
“I am not aware of any other project where seven independently owned newspapers got together on a common project involving document access ? anything else for that matter,” said project editor Don Asher, Porter County editor of the Times of Northwest Indiana.
The other newspapers in the project were the Tribune Star, Star Press, Journal Gazette, South Bend Tribune, Star and News, and Evansville Courier. The seven papers have a combined Sunday circulation of 904,912 and a weekday circulation of 615,001.
The undertaking was conceived in April 1997 by a group of editors and reporters who suspected that citizens have difficulty accessing public documents.
Small army of field auditors
Last August, the newspapers sent “field auditors” ? reporters and interns ? to local government agencies in all the state’s counties to see if they could get access to such public documents as coaches’ salaries, police logs, crime reports, school board minutes and death certificates ? all chosen for their news value and interest to citizens.
In order to make the “audit” fair, a protocol was developed for field workers. It explained what to anticipate and how to respond to questions in government offices. A form was created for each requested record so field auditors could immediately document their visits. The raw data was entered into a database.
The field auditors were instructed to reveal they were journalists only if pressed to do so. Under Indiana law, people don’t have to identify themselves or explain why they want public documents.
The researchers found that sheriffs’ departments across the state routinely peppered information requesters with questions, told them they needed subpoenas or lawyers, and even conducted background checks on people asking for records ? all open under state law.
Kyle Niederpruem, environmental reporter for the Indianapolis Star-News, said that when press representatives across the state had previously complained about being denied access to public records, lawmakers had routinely denied any such pattern, beyond isolated incidents. The results of the investigation, however, dramatically document extensive abuse by government officials of the open records law.
“I think we just got tired of hearing that,” said Niederpruem, who also chairs the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. “The records we selected are very clearly spelled out as public records,” she said.
James Derk, computer research editor at the Evansville Courier, said part of his newspaper’s job was number crunching: entering information in a database to compile the statistics showing who complied with the law and who didn’t. The Courier then posted a spreadsheet-like collection of information on its Web site. “We decided to put it up so people can look at the data,” said Derk.
Penalties for VIOLATORS?
Derk said state lawmakers should impose penalties for violations of open records law. “There’s never been a fine,” he explained. “We don’t want a county clerk to go to jail, but we want some punitive result. In the case where a sheriff says, ‘I don’t care what the state law says, you’re not getting my record,’ there is nothing a citizen can do. There has got to be some action citizens can take,” said Derk.
Paul McMasters, ombudsman at Freedom Forum, said the project confirmed what open access advocates have been charging for years. He recalls the Tennessean in Nashville and a project in New Mexico where reporters similarly investigated access to public documents.
“The public is systematically denied access to vital information by officials who don’t know about the law, don’t care about the law, or don’t want to be bothered,” said McMasters.
“I think the sunshine laws in every state and locality are routinely violated or ignored. That is why it’s so important that news organizations replicate this project in every state. Indiana journalists have shown the way and the results and the need,” said McMasters.
“I am not aware of any other project where seven
independently owned newspapers got together on a common project”
?(How some Indiana papers played stories from cooperative newspaper investigation proving local governments ignore open records law.) [Photo & Caption]
?(The public is systematically denied access to vital information by officials who don’t know about the law, don’t care about the law, or don’t want to be bothered”) [Caption]
?(-Paul McMasters, ombudsman, Freedom Forum) [Caption]
?(Indianapolis Star and News http://www.starnews.com/News/
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 28, 1998) [Caption]