NewsTrain takeaway: Tips for getting public data
By Rocío Hernández
David Cuillier was driving through Georgia when he pulled over to observe a scene he thought encapsulated what it felt like to be a reporter in the past eight years.
He saw three birds gathering around roadkill. The birds reminded him of public officials coming down on a defeated journalist who was unsuccessful at obtaining public records from them.
Government employees are taking advantage of newsroom layoffs across the country, which are leaving reporters stretched as they cover multiple beats, Cuillier, an associate professor and director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, told journalists at an Associated Press Media Editors’ Newstrain training in Phoenix.
Cuillier and other experts offered professional and student journalists tips to ensure that their stories and story ideas would not end up like a dead meat.
Although the number of public requests has increased by 18 percent since the 2016 election, 78 percent of those requests have been denied, Cuillier told the audience.
He said that an important key to getting through the red tape is approaching government employees with the right kind of confidence.
Cuillier showed the audience a picture of Puss in Boots from the movie “Shrek 2,” an orange cat with big, bright green eyes and an adorable pout. He likened that cat to a journalist making a public records “request.”
The next photo was of a more serious and grumpier cat, which Cuillier likened to a no-nonsense journalist “ordering” a public record.
If confidence alone doesn’t do the job and public officials still refuse to give you the data you need, Cuillier suggested going a step further: threaten to publish your story without the information and tell readers that public officials refused to cooperate with you. Chances are, they will be more receptive to your request, he said.
In addition to loading up on confidence, Cuillier suggested that journalists educate themselves about laws having to do with public records. In Arizona, for example, text messages sent by government officials regarding government-related business are subject to public record laws. Citizens are also allowed to ask for records on open police investigations, Cuillier said.
Sarah Cohen, the Knight chair in data journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that before journalists even draft a letter requesting data, they should understand exactly what they are looking for so they know what to ask for.
Most public agencies don’t have a menu of the kinds of data they collect, Cohen said, but there are ways to determine what information is gathered and how it is aggregated.
One way is to take a tour of the public agency you are interested in so you can learn in person what kind of data it collects, Cohen suggested. Or, take a virtual tour of a public office’s website. Online forms that can be filled out electronically, such as police reports, are clues to the data that is probably being recorded, she said. Cohen also recommended looking through budgets, audits and record-retention schedules of public agencies and municipalities for clues about sources they used. Those sources may be available to journalists, too.
If all else fails, Cohen suggested working backwards and using one data set to find a related related data set.
While the experts agreed that the only way to get better at gathering data is to practice filing public records requests, they warned journalists against doing so while on deadline.
Cuillier urged reporters to make a public records “order” each Friday. This will help them perfect the task, and if half of their orders are denied or ignored, reporters will still have some information to work with.
The Phoenix workshop also offered sessions in writing, measuring social media for branding and audience engagement, mining data for enterprise stories, storytelling on mobile devices, and covering the border and immigration.
Rocío Hernández (Summer 2015) is a reporter-producer for KUER in Salt Lake City. She attended APME’s Phoenix NewsTrain in April 2018.
The Freedom Forum Institute offers scholarships to CQS alumni who are working as journalists or teaching journalism full time and are interested in attending an APME NewsTrain workshop. The scholarship covers up to $1,000 for travel expenses. The next NewsTrain will be held in Milwaukee on Sept. 27, with an application deadline of Aug. 16 for a diversity scholarship. Workshops will also be held in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 18-19 and Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Oct. 25-26. Interested alums should contact Karen Catone, firstname.lastname@example.org. Scholarship recipients are required to submit a piece about their workshop experience for the CQS website.