Radio & Television News Association

Monday, March 13, 2006

Sunshine Week

This week, journalists are telling lots of stories about the importance of open records. is a collection of more than 35,000 public record databases. You can tap into them for free, or pay about five bucks a month for fast access to the data.

With it, you're able to search all sorts of licenses, inspection records, corporation records and a ton more in every state -- plus territories -- and even some other countries. Most American journalists have access to these kinds of open records and still do not use them to enrich stories and dig deeper.

Municipalities are required, under the state's Freedom of Information law, to make town records available, but the law does not require access be available over the Internet.

If not for the Freedom of Information Act, people may never have learned that a retired county department head was poised to receive a record $99,000-a-year pension. Or that 21 county school buildings may have had too much arsenic in their drinking water. Or that the city of Flint spent $11.9 million on outside attorneys over a six-year span. Or that thousands of taxpayer dollars had been spent on splashy out-of-town trips for county school administrators. It's all there in public documents for anyone to see.

When government refuses to hand over records to an average citizen, that's often the end of the road. Few people can afford to hire lawyers to go toe-to-toe with our government. That's one place where the media can and does play an important role. We can muster the money to sue for access to important records.

Here's an online guide to obtaining information:

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has an easy-to-use FOI letter generator, for general requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

For files about themselves, individuals should make requests under the Privacy Act.


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