Recently, our newsroom has had to dig deep into a few “hard news” stories that left some folks wondering about the how and why parts of our job. That’s completely understandable.
As I said when I came here a little more than a year ago now, we play by a set of rules that no one else seems to know — even if they think they know them. So, it’s only fair to take the time, every once in a while, to help educate folks.
Sometimes, good news will literally walk through the front door. But, more often than not, the best stories require a lot of research and digging. Some call this muckraking. Others call it investigative journalism.
Regardless of what you want to call it, the proper term is “enterprise journalism.”
Every time you develop a story solely on research and a desire to answer your own questions, you are engaging in enterprise journalism. If you’re working off of a press release, you’re not really being an “enterprising reporter.”
The best way to be successful at enterprise journalism it to know where to look for good story leads.
In recent years, many of the nation’s major media outlets have run away from enterprise journalism, citing a lack of resources. How ironic, considering we now have more information at our immediate disposal than at any other time in recorded history.
That’s why they call it the Information Age.
So, let’s look at information sources that can be highly useful to journalists who are committed to serving their communities. Then, we’ll discuss what you do with that information, once you have it.
It’s important to remember that journalists have no special powers. The information we access to report the news, especially in an enterprise journalism sense, is available to everyone.
Iowa’s “sunshine laws” are contained in chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. They are purposely written to be easily interpreted by both government officials, as well as the general public.
And, when ambiguity exists — and there is a lot of that — the intent of the law is to assume openness. In other words, if the law doesn’t expressly prohibit public access to information, it is assumed to be public information.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the information you are looking for. In those cases, it’s always good to just walk up to City Hall and ask for it.
Another important fact to remember: public information requests may be entirely anonymous. You do not have to say who you are, or why you want the information, in order to obtain it. But, just because a public official asks, “Why?” do not assume they are trying to hide anything.
Human beings are naturally curious. Some, more so than others.
Also, requests are not required to be made in writing. However, if you want to ensure you get the information you want, a written request is generally most helpful to those looking it up for you.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office also provides a number of useful tips and points of law to consider at its website, http://www.iowa.gov/government/ag/sunshine_advisories/index.html.
The State of Iowa is arguably one of the most transparent in the U.S., but that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket endorsement of every governmental agency. And, sometimes, documents that arguably would seem public in nature have been deemed confidential by state law.
Like local government, access to state government records is governed by chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. But, other chapters of the code may supersede those provisions of Iowa law.
If a government official says information is confidential, ask him or her to specify what provision of Iowa law makes the information protected from public scrutiny.
Some important pieces of information that are deemed public information in Iowa include: public employee salaries, expense reports, and tax returns; governmental bodies’ budgets, budget amendments, and itemized monthly expenses; voter registration information; driver’s license applications; concealed weapons permit applications; bus safety and governmental building inspection reports.
Getting the information is actually the easy part. What you do with it once you have it is more difficult, but far more vital to a journalist’s job. For starters, you need to read the information and determine if there is anything in it that should be revealed to the public.
And if there is, the next step is to find the public official or officials who would be responsible for that area of government and ask them the questions the public would generally want answered. This is the part where the biggest misunderstandings often occur.
Just because we’re asking questions doesn’t mean we’re “out to get you.” We’re just doing our job, which is to be the watchdog of government on behalf of the people.
Once you have your information and your responses from the public officials compiled, the final step is to determine the best way and arrangement of that information so you can get it in the public’s hands, and so the public will understand what it is reading. That’s the hardest step of all.
But once you’ve completed them all, you have executed on of the most important duties of every journalist.
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If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.