The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

March 22, 2014

Journalists use public records to change human lives

Today ends Sunshine Week, an annual observance during which reporters inform the public about the benefits of their nosey actions. The observance began in 2005.

It occurs this month during the week that includes James Madison’s birthday, which is March 16. Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, from which the U.S. Supreme Court has extrapolated the right to know, which is the basis for open meetings and open records legislation otherwise known as Sunshine laws.

Journalists often fail to emphasize that Sunshine laws not only benefit reporters but also members of the public. Anyone has the right to request an open record — rich or poor, Christian or pagan, college-educated or eighth-grade-educated, man or woman, gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat.

Statistics show more John and Jane Does request federal open records than do journalists.

The website sunshineweek.org aggregated a collection of just a smattering of news organizations that used federal and state Freedom of Information Acts in 2012 for reporting. These kinds of stories change lives and laws.

- DNAinfo used New York’s FOIA law to show New York City schools average five school bus accidents a day. Fifty companies provide school bus service in New York. One operator told DNAinfo that the city has “the safest school bus record in the nation.” Safety advocates said the data points to the need for more safety features on the buses.

- St. Louis Post Dispatch reporters filed public records requests to find out more about the environmental cleanup of a long-abandoned coke plant designed to make way for a new business park. The request generated 11,000 pages of records, which the reporters reviewed on site, rather than getting copies and likely prompting an environmental cleanup in the newsroom. The records search showed the $6.7 million project estimate was much too low, which officials knew at the time; that there was no public bidding; and that the original polluters paid only a fraction of the cleanup cost.

- The Ann Arbor News used the state’s FOIA to track the wages of police and firefighters, discovering that they often earn far more than their base salaries. An assistant fire chief who retired in mid-November took home $75,797 in regular pay, $17,000 in paid time off and sick pay, $8,309 in allowances, $10,325 in overtime and comp time, and $101,463 in severance.

- The Pocono (Pa.) Record spent a year gathering and analyzing the pay records of 12,000 area government employees to present a series titled “The Truth About Public Pay.” More than twice as many men as women earn more than $100,000 a year, and the median salary for men was 11 percent higher. Even jobs traditionally dominated by women, such as teaching, paid men more.

- Freedom of Information requests filed by the Boston Globe uncovered investigative reports critical of emergency room procedures at three area hospitals that resulted in patients being turned away, including one who died en route to another hospital.

- Using the federal FOIA and California’s Brown Act, the Palm Springs Desert Sun tracked the dumping of hazardous waste near an elementary school on an Indian reservation by a firm contracting with the Los Angeles School District.

- The Los Angeles Times used the California public records act to access coroners’ files in four adjacent counties, finding 3,733 deaths involving prescription medicines in the previous five years, most as a result of overdoses. The review found that in 47 percent of the cases, the prescribed medicine was the sole cause or a contributing factor in the deaths.

- Financial disclosure records obtained by Bloomberg News through a FOIA request revealed conflicts of interest of some of the Federal Reserve regional bank presidents, including one who invested close to $300,000 in an index fund, 15 percent as the result of a Federal Reserve action taken two weeks after the investment.

The country needs more nosey people. Celebrate Sunshine Week by opening a government window and letting the light of day inside.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

ynerissa@frontier.com.

© 2014 by Nerissa Young

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