Independent journalism is stressing public access practices

A tough economy is pinching public access agencies, while at the same time nontraditional newsgathering increases the requests. Here are some suggestions to resolve the problem.

There's a nasty convergence in these difficult times between the sometimes-high cost of providing public access to public records and the increasing financial problems and layoffs at Washington's newspapers.

School districts, state and local governmental agencies and port districts complain about excessive requests for public records, ranging from fishing expeditions by folks looking for a way to make a buck to intimidating requests for personnel data. These requests can be costly for budget-pressed public agencies, and some can result in release of data that could be harmful to the employees involved. Accordingly, there are numerous efforts at modifying state public-records laws, as detailed by Kent Kammerer in Crosscut recently.

Fair enough, abuses should be addressed. But consider the paradigm shift in the world of newsgathering.

Newspapers are trimming reportorial staffs, and when a big paper like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer goes under, the public will look for others to pick up the slack. Surveys show no lack of interest in news, while at the same time newspapers are dying.

One major result of this will be (already is) an increase in independent journalism, primarily tied to the Web but also connected to smaller publications trying to find a niche for their services. More, not less, will be knocking at the doors of public agencies, and many of the newcomers to the world of journalism will lack the sophisticated skills of veteran investigative reporters; there will be more, not fewer, requests for expansive searches.

Public officials don't have the authority to discriminate between "legitimate" requests and fishing expeditions — and they should not have that authority. Nor can they discriminate between mainstream journalists and bloggers, freelancers, and others. As the world of journalism changes, the nature of requests will change.

The irony of much of the debate over public records is that the cases cited are seldom from the news media; in fact, most public records requests are from other members of the public, not from reporters. But any law to correct these problems will also impact the news media and, in turn, the public at large.

And "other members of the public" are increasingly being relied upon to perform as journalists, whether on a Web site like Crosscut or on political blogs like Horse's Ass or Sound Politics; it could be a Facebook page. Many of these reporters or writers will have neither the experience to carefully craft a request for records nor the budget to pay for a major search.

Public officials must work with, not resist, these folks, for they also serve the public. Perhaps some form of the bar-press committees that worked well over the years to ease conflicts between the media and judges and lawyers could be utilized in this area.

On the other hand, media also need to understand that public employees also have private lives, and using the public records act to gain access to private data that could expose them to harassment or worse is a genuine concern that should be addressed. In a time when reporters and public officials knew and trusted each other, that was seldom an issue, but that is not the emerging environment. The public needs access to public records, but not a baring of the private lives of public employees.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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