Access to information and public records is crucial in order for student journalists to serve the public and share information that may otherwise not be accessible for professional journalists in the field.
Student journalists learn by going out and reporting in the field. We try to practice the same professional strategies the professionals use.
When we use the Freedom of Information Law, we too are pulling back the dark curtain that sometimes shields information from the public.
In training to produce professional journalism, students are sent to gather information by interviewing government officials and using the Freedom of Information Law to acquire public records about various subjects.
When we make efforts to collect information for stories, government officials sometimes don’t offer us the same courtesies they do to professional journalists.
Members of the city Common Council have asked students to contact them after a meeting through email, text, or social media rather than staying for an interview because they’re rushing to go home. These stories are treated as breaking news events to prepare us for the real world.
We compete with local news organizations to scoop news and features. Sources tend to categorize student journalists as unprofessional, untrained, or unsure of what we are doing in the field. This mindset contributes to sources often stalling our efforts to get to the truth.
Transparency between sources and the reporter is important for various reasons.
One reason is that it builds rapport for the source to share intimate stories for which to connect with the readers. To get to these stories, student journalists interview people multiple times to gain an understanding of who the person is.
We are trained to conduct interviews with a central focus and ask many questions, but most of all, listen to our subjects. Students conduct intense research prior to their interviews. However, our path to reporting stories is often thwarted before the research or interview has begun.
Student journalists provide a public service to their communities when writing about neighborhood issues.
When elected officials are transparent and forthright with student journalists, they’re demonstrating the behaviors that landed them in office.
According to the Open Meetings Law, minutes and agendas are to be available to the public one week after the executive session.
When representatives of local governments obstruct access to information or resist simple requests for public documents, they are violating the spirit of our open records laws.
Students reporters impact the local media.
Last month, an Alabama newspaper printed an editorial calling for the return of the KKK, and that event became national news. How? Student journalists took a photo of the editorial and away it went.
We regularly use Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to obtain records from government outlets ranging from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to the city’s fire department reports. Document-based journalism is something we are taught from day one. It’s the toughest kind of reporting, but the results and effects of the final publication are rewarding, and it can lead to real change.
When a government agency like the Corrections Department makes information available online, student journalists and the public benefit from access to that information.
When reporters at Saint Rose updated a story about a hit-and-run crash involving a student who died, access to the state’s database enabled those students to update the story for their community of readers.
No other local news outlets reported that fact.
That’s why Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws are so critical, as they allow not just journalists, but the public as well, to see what elected officials are doing, especially when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars.