IU Media School students find that barriers remain to accessing public information electronically
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Editors: The reporting project described in this release is available for publication without cost to news organizations. It is available online for anyone to read at the websites of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government and the IU Media School.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Eighteen years after the nation’s first statewide audit of public records access, a team of student journalists in the Indiana University Media School conducted a similar reporting project, focusing on digital information access at the local level in the Hoosier state.
What the students found, while working under the tutelage of assistant professor Gerry Lanosga, was that more than half of Indiana county agencies surveyed failed to comply with basic requests required by Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.
Graduate students Craig Lyons, Samim Arif and DeJuan Foster, who were all enrolled in Lanosga’s investigative journalism class in the spring, contacted 90 agencies in a random sample of 30 of the state’s 92 counties. They included sheriff’s departments, country commissioners’ offices and health departments.
Of the 90 agencies contacted for their report, only 48 responded to initial email requests for information within seven days, as required by the Access to Public Records Act. This requirement can be met with a simple acknowledgment of the request.
The reasons for not responding were varied: Emails didn’t go to the correct person, more information was needed, or officials didn’t think they needed to respond.
Another 10 agencies did respond afterward to follow-up calls from the student journalists.
But one-third, or 30 agencies, never responded to either the initial email or follow-up attempts by the reporters.
Thirty-three of the agencies that responded said they did not have the documents being requested.
"The project illustrates that barriers exist in Indiana when it comes to getting public information online from local agencies," said Lyons, a Maine native who spent more than seven years working at daily newspapers in his home state and in New Hampshire. "The project shows that Indiana county agencies, in some instances, are trying to adapt and others aren't."
Counties in the survey included those with urban areas, such as St. Joseph, Hamilton, Lake, Marion, Vanderburgh and Vigo, as well as those with more rural areas, such as Adams, Clinton, Scott and Sullivan.
Lanosga also is president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, which partnered with the IU Media School on the project. He worked for nearly two decades as a print and broadcast journalist in Indiana, his work receiving honors such as the duPont-Columbia Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, Sigma Delta Chi’s public service award, and the Freedom of Information medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors.
In 1997, the coalition -- then known as FOIndiana -- served as a resource to seven Indiana newspapers, which together produced a series revealing that many public officials in Indiana were ignorant of state records laws and faced few consequences. The Indiana Coalition for Open Government is in its 20th year and has an administrative partnership with the IU Media School.
Given how society has shifted to electronic forms of communication, such as smartphones, tablets and computers, Lanosga’s students wanted to explore the effectiveness of email requests for public records. They also wanted to determine whether requesters could easily obtain records in electronic format and the ability of requesters to use their own equipment -- specifically cell phone cameras -- to make copies of public records.
Of the 17 agencies that did provide documents to the IU student journalists, 15 were willing to do so through electronic copies. Out of the 90 agencies contacted, two said they did not have public email addresses.
"This project was undertaken in the spirit of the 1997 audit and uncovered similar barriers to citizen access to public records," Lanosga said. "It was a limited replication of the public access audit, but … at least it threw some light on the issue of electronic access.
"There are, of course, a number of Indiana counties that do not have perhaps the most advanced computer setups," Lanosga said. "Depending on the records, some counties are working with hard copies, and they might have to scan some records in order to make it an electronic copy, which they are not obligated to do.
"But they are obligated to provide it, if they have it."
The student journalists spoke with Luke Britt, Indiana public access counselor, who told them that agencies must make reasonable efforts to provide electronic records to people who ask for them. Under the law, public agencies must respond to electronic requests.
Historically, sheriff’s departments have been among the most difficult agencies in terms of public access, but the student journalists found some of them to be very responsive. Their reporting found that St. Joseph County, home to South Bend, has made it a priority to create and maintain a website with routine information such as daily logs.
"Records requests will always be important, and agencies need to comply, but to the extent that they can, they should just start making this information available online," Lanosga said.
Arif, a journalist from Afghanistan who is studying at the Media School through a Fulbright grant, said he is accustomed to challenges acquiring public information in his home country. He was somewhat surprised with what he found here.
"I encountered offices who didn't have electronic copies of the records they are supposed to have," he said. "Some even said they recently started using computers. That was surprising for me. Yet, I encountered people who were nice and behaved how they should behave."
Lanosga said projects like this not only inform students about the challenges reporters face in doing their jobs, but they also provide practical, realistic experience.
"It’s really important that we provide students with in-the-field experience that they can do away from IU, something on which to launch their professional careers," he said.
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