Mining public records to tell the story, break the news

By Todd Dvorak

When Ian Marquand told the Idaho Press Club he was just passing through Boise and would be willing to give a freebie seminar on public records and the Freedom of Information Act, we jumped at the opportunity.

Marquand is the former Freedom of Information chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists and a longtime leading voice in the West for teaching reporters why mining public records is essential to what we do, and how to better use the law to our advantage. He lives in Helena, Mont., and was driving through Idaho en route to Oregon where he was presenting to a convention of journalists. It took Idaho Press Club President Betsy Russell about five minutes to take him up on the offer.

The summer “Access Across America” seminar, hosted by The Idaho Statesman, was attended by about 40 reporters from Boise-area newspapers, news radio and television stations. Another session was held earlier this summer in Idaho Falls, hosted by the Post Register.

The main thrust of Marquand’s program is simple: Actively chase public records, learn the applicable laws and don’t be intimidated by government officials who reflexively try to make our hunt more difficult.

Here are a few points Marquand conveyed during the 90-minute session:

  • Don’t be sidetracked by costs: In many cases, especially small requests, copies should be made free of charge. If the agency insists on copying and preparation charges, take a trip to the agency and ask to inspect the records yourself.

Another point on costs is publicity. In other words, if an agency insists on payment or if the costs are high, write about it. Let the public know that governments, universities and police departments are charging your newspaper or station for documents designed to be free to the public.

  • Question why a records request is being denied on privacy or personnel reasons. And in doing so, make the case that releasing the records is in the public interest, something that outweighs privacy or personnel. Add this to your argument arsenal: Would the average, reasonable person be appalled or angry at a records rejection letter?
  • Using public records makes us better reporters and makes our news agencies better watchdogs. So get used to using records in your reporting and making it part of your routine. A good tool for that is devoting one day a week to submitting requests. FOI Fridays anyone?
  • Track your records. The busy schedules we all keep can help bury our best efforts at housekeeping vigilance. Avoid that by keeping a log or file on your computer with the name of the request, date filed, the agency’s initial response and other means to track requests until they are fulfilled.
  • Watch what other reporters, newspapers and broadcasters are doing with public records. Then don’t be shy about stealing their ideas. If a government agency is doing something that doesn’t pass the smell test in Idaho Falls, Seattle or California, follow their lead as it applies to your city, county, public school system or state. Yeah, it may not have been an original idea, but watchdog journalism pays dividends.
  • Carry copies of Idaho’s public records law in your wallet, brief case or computer bag. Copies of Idaho’s laws for public records and open meetings are available and downloadable. Arming yourself with the law is the best way to assert your right to know.
  • Get others involved. Having trouble getting records or believe an agency is violating the law? Reach out to the Idaho Press Club, reporters at other newspapers or broadcast stations. There is strength in numbers if a case is worthy of fighting in court. A case in point in Idaho developed in 2011 when a variety of Idaho newspapers, the Idaho Press Club and Associated Press teamed up and shared the legal bills in a fight for records denied by The University of Idaho.
  • Bookmark resources dedicated to public records, access and the laws. Those include: The Society for Professional Journalists; The National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In Idaho, don’t forget Idahoans for Open Government, or IDOG (

Thanks to Betsy Russell, Ian Marquand, the SPJ and The Idaho Statesman for all the help in making this seminar happen on such short notice.

Todd Dvorak is the Boise correspondent for the Associated Press, and is vice president of the Idaho Press Club and chairman of our First Amendment Committee.