Most times, you have to dig really hard to get the story. You have to research, conduct extensive interviews, and analyze answers and data to come to some semblance of the truth.
And, sometimes, the story just lands in your lap.
Normally, I post my Ben Franklin Journalism update on Wednesday afternoon, largely because it’s the easiest day of the week in my normal work schedule, and provides ample time to think about what I will write in the evening for the post. This week, however, I was a little bit busy Wednesday afternoon and evening.
Around 5 p.m., I received word that two tornadoes had struck the small town of Lenox, Iowa, approximately 20 miles northeast of Clarinda. While it’s not in our primary coverage area, it is just outside of it, and it is in the coverage area of our parent newspaper, The Omaha World-Herald.
The initial damage reports were fairly innocuous, suggesting a couple of homes experienced roof damage. And, knowing my evening would otherwise be open, I volunteered to take photos for our parent.
When I arrived in Lenox, I knew the situation was far worse than the original damage reports suggested. A police officer was at the main northern entrance into the community, turning “gawkers” away. I used my World-Herald Company security badge as proof that I was a working journalist.
A few seconds later, I was staring at Ground Zero, the city park. Not many trees survived the twisters, both of which went right through the park and were later rated EF0 and EF1 in strength. City and county road crews were already hard at work, clearing debris from the streets nearby.
Power lines were down, and much of the park sustained moderate to severe structural damage. Damage to nearby houses ranged from nothing at all to shredded roofs and second floors ripped away.
Talking briefly with law enforcement, I discover no one was injured, but there had been a few stories of people who rode out the tornadoes without the option of retreating to a basement or storm cellar. Jotting notes as I went around and took photos of the damage, I was quickly putting together the pieces of the story together in my head.
The 11-year-old boy was home alone when the sirens sounded. His mother, an employee at the local grocery store, called him and told him to go to the laundry room, because they didn’t have a basement. So, he did.
But, he also decided to take the unconventional step of holing himself up in the dryer.
Within a second of closing the door, he said something made of glass hit the door. After the storm subsided, the roof of the laundry room had been ripped away, and there was glass strewn all over and vegetative debris pelted on the walls.
Austin was completely unscathed.
And, I got his story completely by accident.
I was simply looking for reaction comments from the occupant of the home, which was clearly destroyed by the tornado. When I asked someone standing outside the home if he was the homeowner, he quickly said, “No,” and told me both the homeowner and the renter were inside, surveying the damage.
“But, he was home alone,” the man told me, pointing toward Austin.
As I said, sometimes the news just lands in your lap. The fact that he was completely traumatized by the experience, and was more than willing to talk about it, was an incredible coup for a journalist. That his mother was willing to let him be interviewed was priceless.
The lesson to be learned from all of this is pretty simple: always be ready for the news to happen, because it will happen whether you’re there or not.
“Get the facts, or the facts will get you. And, when you get ’em, get ’em right, or they will get you wrong.”
— Dr. Thomas Fuller
Defamation comes in many forms, the most common of which that impacts journalism being libel, the communication of a false statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, or governmental body a negative image.
There is a four-part test to determine whether or not libel has occurred. The first three apply to every case; the fourth applies only to celebrities, government officials, and other “prominent people.”
The first test, is this: is what was said the truth? If what you report as a journalist is truthful, then no argument of libel or defamation can possibly stand up. The best way to ensure you always have the truth on your side is by triple-checking your facts throughout the reporting process.
The legal parameters for libel are a little more stringent than simply saying the truth. If the statement is false, it must have been communicated as though it was a fact, and it must be easily proven to be false. If you can’t prove the statement is either true or false, then a libel charge cannot hold up.
Journalists have what is called “qualified protection” from libel, if they are reporting information based on public meetings, and or documents, for stories that are of public importance. In other words, information published about a politician or government official that is damning or embarrassing isn’t necessarily libelous.
The public always has an overriding right to know the truth, no matter how harmful it might be to someone’s political career.
Libel requires that the false statement be communicated to another person via printed product or an electronic broadcast. This requirement of the law also covers Internet news websites, although Internet service providers and website hosts are protected from such lawsuits.
Blogs, however, delve into another area that has limited protection. Because much of what they report lies in the realm of hyperbole and opinion, they have limited libel protections that regular journalists do not enjoy.
However, there are efforts under way to correct that difference, created largely because libel laws have not yet caught up with 21st century technology. But, suffice it to say, if you publish something that isn’t true, reporting that it is a fact, and at least one person has access to that information, you’re in danger of a libel lawsuit.
Referring back to the first test, the false information must be proven to be false, not just ambiguously false. But, beyond that, the third test for any libel case is whether or not the journalist did everything in his or her power to ensure the information provided in the story was completely accurate.
There are cases where “garbage in” results in “garbage out.” In these rare cases, the journalist is provided with bad information, perhaps due to a scrivener’s error in an official document, that causes an erroneous report. In these cases, the journalist has some protection, but it is not complete protection — more on that in a moment.
In the case of a prominent person, celebrity, or political official, a libel case must also show there was “actual malice” on the part of the journalist. In other words, the journalist must have intended to cause harm to the reputation of the person he or she was writing about when he or she reported a false statement.
Usually, actual malice is most easily proven in the manner by which the journalist and/or his or her news organization respond to a complaint of libel. Most states require the person who believes he or she was libeled to formally complain to the news organization.
How these complaints are rectified can vary greatly from state to state, but usually a simple correction of the false information is all that is necessary. This applies even in the “garbage in-garbage out” situations.
More on that below.
Retractions vs. Corrections
“I want a retraction!”
As the editor and publisher of several different newspapers, I’ve heard that phrase more times than I can possibly count. But, thankfully, I have yet to ever go to the extreme of retracting a story — the most serious level of correction a news organization may take.
Sometimes, a key fact gets lost in the shuffle, or it becomes confused due to bad writing, bad editing, or a combination of both. In these cases, “clarifications” are published to make the information clearer to the reader.
When a mistake is made in the reporting process, whether it is made by the reporter, or as a result of a garbage-in-garbage-out problem, a “correction” is published. Usually, in the cases of clarifications and corrections, there is a standard location in the newspaper — hopefully a prominent location — for these to appear.
But, when a particularly egregious error occurs, or when a story has completely missed the mark in terms of accuracy, a retraction becomes appropriate. Keep in mind, this is the “nuclear option” for bad reporting, and rarely ever occurs.
When it does, something very bad has happened.
Opportunity to Correct
Most states require someone who has been maligned by bad reporting to file a complaint in writing with the news organization in question. Some states also provide a timeframe in which such complaint must be submitted, as well as a particular method of delivery.
It’s important to know the rules in your state.
And, when a complaint is received, most states also require that the news organization be afforded an opportunity to correct the mistake. This can have an impact on the “malice” portion of any libel claim.
Again, how a correction must be made to be considered adequate to avoid malice charges varies from state to state.
So, as you can see, making a complaint of libel is quite complicated, and the law assumes no malice on the part of journalists. But, the best way to avoid problems is to check, double-check, and triple-check your facts.
First-place best news video, Iowa Newspaper Association (2011)
In the 21st-century newsroom, one of the most important skills any journalist can exhibit is the ability to shoot and edit one’s own video reports. Even the “old dogs” are being forced to learn this “new trick,” with mixed results.
We’re going to pretend you already have equipment and video-editing software that will work for the job. So, let’s look at the basics: what goes into a good video news report.
Third-place best news video, Iowa Newspaper Association (2010)
Like any good news article, you need a story to tell. In fact, you would likely construct your video news report in the same general format as if you were writing the story. The easiest way to do that is to record your interview.
One important tip, particularly for those who give their subjects verbal cues in the middle of interviews: keep your mouth shut. This can be a difficult habit to break; one way to do that would be to switch from verbal to non-verbal cues, such as simple head nods.
Second-place best news video, Iowa Newspaper Association (2010)
Eye-Catching ‘B’ Roll
The “B” roll is the extra footage that videographers use to help visualize the story, and it usually runs with narration from the subject or the reporter. When shooting video for a web-based format, there usually isn’t going to be a “reporter” to narrate, but using the audio from your interview is helpful.
If you can capture video of the key elements the subject is talking about, particularly video that demonstrates exactly what the subject is talking about, you have perfect “B” roll material. In some cases, especially when reporting on an event, almost any extra footage will work for your “B” roll.
First-place best news video, Iowa Newspaper Association (2010)
The traditional news video is never less than 90 seconds, nor more than three minutes, in length. So, you need to keep the interview sharply focused; this is best done by asking questions that allow for more than simple “yes” or “no” answers, but do not lend themselves to producing soliloquies from your subjects.
If possible, you will want to use some “ambient audio” — sound that was recorded along with the “B” roll video — in the course of the report, so you want to keep the subject’s talking time limited to less than two minutes. This is always easier said than done, and really only becomes a finely honed skill with lots and lots of practice.
Remember that the source may not always provide the information that is most useful to your audience. Sometimes, it is up to you, as the reporter, to give the audience what it needs. This can be done through the use of information graphics.
You can build information graphics using photo-editing or pagination software. Most video editing programs allow you to upload JPEG files as still images for your videos. This can be useful if the audience needs to see key information in a visual format during the report.
One of the biggest offenses I see in news video is when someone is talking and the audience has no clue who that person is. News banners that give that information are very easy to add to your video reports, even with the cheapest video editing software on the market.
Keeping these key tips in mind as you produce your news video will go a long way. And, it will make you a well-rounded 21st-century journalist.
Next week, we will delve into the nuts and bolts of libel law.
Sorry for the delay in posting this latest entry. Technical issues prevented me from posting until now. Don’t we just love 21st century technology? Only when it’s on our side.
As promised a couple of weeks ago, this week we will look at a couple of things to keep in mind when engaging in news photography. Some of this has been covered, but not in a lot of detail.
News photography is perhaps my biggest passion. You can’t create compelling pages to look at, whether you’re in newsprint or online, without something compelling to look at. Sorry, graphic artists, but flowery text won’t do the job.
So, let’s dig in.
As the old saying goes, “the right tool for the right job.” Well, it couldn’t be more true than in news photography. Sure, a cheap point-and-shoot camera can shoot high-resolution photos, and might even capture high-definition video, but how does it do with high-speed action, or in low-light situations?
No, even a mid-range digital SLR will run circles around any point-and-shoot, even if it doesn’t capture images in as high definition as the point-and-shoot. In the SLR world, there are a number of brands to choose from, but like soda and politics, it’s still a two-brand world.
Many people love to rave on about Canon. Others insist upon Nikon. Having worked with both extensively for the past 12 years, I can assure you the brand name has little to do with the quality of your photos. Having the proper set-up, and the skills to actually use the camera, however, will go much farther.
Hard bodies are hot
There’s something to be said for spending an extra $400 at the onset in order to protect your total investment in camera equipment. Having a camera body that is capable of taking a few shocks (i.e. getting dropped from waist high without exploding inside) without falling apart is almost vital.
So, on the Canon side, while the EOS Rebel T1i is pretty hot (15 megapixels and capable of capturing 1080p video) at just $650 for the body, I would prefer to spend the extra cash for the EOS 60D (no video, but 18 megapixels, and much more resilient) for $1,100.
On the Nikon side, you’ve actually got a couple of choices, depending on how “spendy” you want to get. I like the D90’s resilience and video capture capability (only 720p, but it doesn’t matter when you’re looking at it online) for the value price of $900 for the body only. But, for $1,700, you can get the D300, which captures full 1080p video and has a magnesium alloy body that makes it both shock-proof and weather-proof.
What is SLR?
SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, and it is the primary way photography has worked for more than a century. A mechanism will open the camera’s iris for a fraction of a second (your shutter speed), and at a specific diameter (your f-stop), causing light to enter the camera.
The light that enters the camera in that fraction of an instant then impacts a mirror inside the camera. Prior to the advent of digital photography, this light was then reflected onto light-sensitive (photosensitive) film. Depending upon the amount of light and the “speed” (ISO) of the film, the way the film reacted to the light would dictate the final image imprinted on the film.
Today, the light will impact a photosensitive sensor inside the camera body that reacts to light in varying degrees based on the camera’s “speed” setting. The settings are all pretty similar to an “old-fashioned” film camera, and the digital SLR reacts to its environment very much like its film predecessor.
It’s all about the light
So, with an SLR camera, lighting is the most important factor. Now, camera companies will tell you that the body (the central component that contains all of the controls, mirrors and sensors) has more to do with the quality of the photo. But, that’s because camera bodies on the high end can set you back as much as $5,000.
In the news photography world, you can do just as well with a camera body that costs one-tenth as much. But, you still need to be able to address your lighting needs. The best way to make up the difference is with quality lenses and flashes.
While the iris, a component of the body, still dictates how much light can hit the internal mirror, technology has really caught up with this aspect of digital photography. Even low-end SLR cameras are capable of infinitesimally small shutter speeds, and lightning-fast “film” speeds.
The right lens
But, if you’re working with a “box set” camera, which usually comes with a low-end lens, you’re never going to get enough light into the camera to make a difference. So, while the box set is economical, stay away from it if you intend to shoot for quality news photos.
And, like camera bodies, lenses can get extremely expensive, too. High-speed lenses used by professional sports photographers can set you back more than $10,000. But, once again, you can get the job done for far less than that, if you’re smart about how you’re shopping. The two key factors are lens diameter and the f-stop range.
The wider the lens diameter, the more light it can let in at higher shutter speeds (remember, the faster the shutter speed, the less amount of time it is open). A wider lens also offers a wider field of vision, even when zooming into the target photograph. But, keep in mind that the more you zoom in, the longer you’re stretching the available light source (and darkening the resulting photograph).
Two set-ups worth their weight
I’ve worked with two different set-ups for my lenses. The first set-up is to have a high-end wide-angle lens and a mid-range telephoto lens. The second is to go with a high-end all-in-one lens. Surprisingly, they’ve both worked well for me, even though the latter set-up has hamstrung me a couple of times in long-range situations.
In the first set-up, I purchased a wide-angle lens with a focal range of 17-50mm and an f-stop of 2.8. Then, I got a nice 70-200mm/f-2.8 telephoto. I also went with an “off brand” (Tamron) to save quite a bit of money in the process. Total cost, about $1,250.
In the second set-up, I purchased a 28-300mm telephoto lens with an f-stop range of 3.5-6.3. Again, I went with Tamron; the only huge down-side to this brand is that the lenses are plastic, not glass, so you have to be a little more careful to avoid warping the lens. It also can hamstring you a little in long-range shots, because it will require a flash. Total cost, about $700.
Flashes are important, too
When it comes to flashes, I don’t cut corners, mainly because you want the best synchronization you can get. So, match the brand of your flash with your camera body for the best results. And, go with the mid-range flash, which should set you back no more than $300-325.
Perhaps the biggest mistake that I see news photographers make when using their flash is that they aim the light directly at the subject, washing it out three-fourths of the time. Instead, they should practice “bouncing” the light off of the ceiling to get a more natural lighting look to their shots.
Knowing how and when to use your diffuser and how to manually adjust the intensity of your flash are also keys to having quality photographs. And, individually, they’re very in-depth topics of conversation. I can’t give away all of my secrets, now can I?
Now that you have the proper equipment, it doesn’t hurt to know how to take a good photograph, too. The first key to great newspaper photos, however, is framing. The rule to live by is “The Rule of Thirds.”
This is done by dividing the photo frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This will create a grid of nine smaller frames. Use these as a guide for “framing” the principal target of your photograph, while letting the environment help tell the “rest of the story.”
The ancient Greeks somehow discovered that the human eye finds the rectangle to be a pleasing shape, and that in a photograph (or in their case, a painting), the eye likes it when the main element is found at an intersection of two of the guidelines. How they figured this out, I have no idea, but it works, so go with it.
Of course, you can achieve this by cropping your photos later, but it’s far easier to do the cropping with your own eye as you prepare to take your photograph. As I always say, “Work smarter, not harder.”
And now that you have the right camera equipment, and know how to create a visually appealing photograph, you need to know what kinds of photographs are most likely to grab the attention of a news reader. If you’re wondering, “grip and grin” photographs won’t do the trick.
First off, every news photo should show someone doing something. It should tell the story not only by who is in the frame, but by what they are doing. This is how a photograph becomes worth a 1,000 words.
Next, a news photograph needs to incorporate as many of the elements of the story as possible. For instance, if you’re covering a flood event, you might get by with a photo showing the high water, but what about the people trying to hold the water back? What about the families who are dealing with flood damage?
Finally, a news photograph should give the reader something extra, whether it is something unexpected, or something that goes a little beyond the call of duty, the extra work you put into the frame will pay off in the end. For instance, while covering a fire, capturing a firefighter dowsing himself with water to cool off as the fire rages behind him will definitely gather extra eyes.
So, there you have it. With all of this in mind, you’re fully equipped to not just take photographs for your news outlet; you can take eye-catching photographs that will capture your readers’ attention.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the world of news video, from a print publication/web publication perspective.
As the old saying goes, there’s certainly more than one way to skin a cat; especially if that cat is producing a news article.
The tried-and-true method of newswriting is called the “inverted pyramid” style. It was developed by correspondents covering the Civil War. Both sides were sabotaging telegram wires in an effort to prevent news from getting back to their opponents after key battles.
So, in an effort to get the most important information conveyed quickly, correspondents would send the most important information first, the least important information last. That way, if the cables were cut, hopefully the key information made it back to the newspaper.
Today, the inverted pyramid style is easiest for editors who may need to pare down a story to make it fit the limited news hole space. While this format is good for conveying the facts most quickly, it can lack flare — those little details that make a story more compelling — which makes it a weak format for features writing.
In those cases, the tried-and-true format is prose, or long-form writing. Like the standard composition essay, prose has an introduction, an informative body, and a wrap-it-up conclusion. In general, most prose-format features are narratives written in chronological order.
These two formats have been the mainstay of American journalism since its founding, but in an increasingly fast-paced world, the need for more information faster has led to the development of other formats. We call these formats “short form writing.”
One of the masters of short form is Tim Harrower, the man who literally wrote “the book” on newspaper design. The following are but a few of the methods he instructs professional journalists to use when looking for alternative means of storytelling.
Sometimes, the Joe Friday method — just the facts, ma’am — is the best way to get as many details and facts in your reader’s hands as possible. This is usually a sidebar to a short article or information graphic (more on those in a moment).
Usually, a simple rundown of the “Five W’s & H” will suffice.
As opposed to a long-form feature story, sometimes it’s better to simply give us the key details about a person’s history. This is useful when trying to condense a whole bunch of candidates running for office into a short amount of space.
Why try to get flowery when all you’re trying to convey is a list of people, places, or objects? Give us a short header to identify what the list is, and then give us the list. It’s compact, but it delivers all of the information the reader wants.
Slightly different than a list, a checklist is a rundown of key steps the reader should follow to accomplish something. Or, it can provide a slightly more detailed list of items necessary to complete a task, or to be prepared for an event.
By the Numbers
Almost everything has numbers that can be associated with it. Some numbers are more important — or more interesting — than others. From smallest to largest, providing a rundown of key numbers associated with the main topic can be useful to the “stat rats” out there.
Even 15 years ago, journalism instructors taught students that question-and-answer format was “cheating.” But, frankly, it is the best way to keep a subject’s quotes in full and complete context for the reader.
Magazines have been using this format for decades, and newspapers are finally starting to follow suit. In the Digital Age, there are far more interesting things you can do with an interview and the Q&A format.
A lot of people like to be challenged when they read. So, test their knowledge on the subject material with a short, simple quiz. Multiple choice is the most common format, but fill-in-the-blank works, too.
The quiz format is most useful when there a lot of misperceptions about a particular topic, or when the topic is “new” or “unusual” to your audience. And, it adds a layer of entertainment value to the news item.
Information graphics, or “infographics,” are the one format in which all forms of media have most quickly adapted. It follows the old adage, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” This form of storytelling began developing with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and soon became a requirement for all major news events.
There are many different kinds of infographics, though. This category includes maps, charts, tables, diagrams, annotated schematics, and timelines. The goal is to provide the most amount of information in as little space and as quickly as possible.
Usually, no single format will suffice for short form journalism. A mixture of two or three, in a well-packaged format will work best. And, it’s always helpful to have solid graphics to work with.
Next week: Photography is just as important as good writing skills in a fast-paced media environment. Next time, we’ll look at key tips to get a great photo to go along with your story.
There are a number of ways to record a conversation. Some work better than others. Some can help in your effort for media convergence, as well. So, let’s take a look at the primary means of recording your interviews.
Handwritten notes are the tried and true method for taking down information during a news interview. The accuracy of those notes, however, depends largely upon the interviewer’s ability to use effective shorthand notes.
Shorthand is a skill set many colleges no longer teach, largely because technology has made shorthand all but obsolete in the business world. There are two official forms of shorthand used today: Gregg and Pitman. And, thankfully, there are still places to learn both of them on the Internet.
One alternative to an “official” shorthand method is to develop a shorthand system of your own. As long as you understand your notes, that is the key to effectively gathering accurate information during interviews.
Twenty-first century technology has made handwritten note taking much more effective. One way is through the use of “SmartPen” technology. The technology is still rather expensive — SmartPens cost more than $200 each and “dot paper” to write on can cost $10 or more for just a few pages — but for those who struggle with note taking may find it invaluable.
The SmartPen links the audio it is recording to the words you write on the dot paper. Then, when you touch a key word on the dot paper notes, the SmartPen will begin playing back the associated audio that was previously recorded.
And, like mobile technology found in “SmartPhones,” the SmartPen features specialized “apps” that can aid the user. Some apps include programs that can help the user learn a new language, or to improve the user’s efficiency.
A more traditional way to record audio during an interview is to use a recorder. Tape recorders have been popular for nearly 45 years, while digital recorders have become more prevalent in the past decade.
Regardless of the type of audio recorder you choose, it is important to maintain a secondary type of recording system. Batteries are prone to dying, and no technology has been built to completely avoid mechanical failure.
One of the most popular methods employed by professional journalists is to hold the audio recorder underneath their reporter’s notebook while furiously scribbling notes. This will allow the reporter to have handwritten notes that reflect the general sense of what was said, while the audio recording gives the exact quote.
Some reporters who use audio recorders will write down “time stamps” in their handwritten notes, particularly at key points of the interview, to make for easier reference when writing the story later.
In the world of 21st century journalism, where “mobile journalists” — mojo’s for short — reign supreme, video reporting is no longer a fad, but a requirement. To more efficiently conduct their convergent media reporting, many mojo’s will record the interview via video recorder.
The advantages are obvious. Not only do you have the exact quote in full context, but you can review the body language and report on the subtle nuances of the subject’s conversation style that you cannot capture through handwritten notes or audio recordings alone.
Many point-and-shoot cameras feature video capture technology. And, there are a number of digital SLR cameras that offer video capture, as well. High-definition is nice — particularly if the video will be aired on broadcast or cable television — but not necessary.
Playback methods on YouTube range from full definition to low definition. But most other video capture programs only replay videos in small-scale, low-definition format. We will go into this element of 21st reporting in the near future.
Making It Happen
Keep in mind there are many other ways to record your interviews. These are the most popular methods today. The key point is to double-up on methods to ensure the interview is recorded in some manner.
The best way to ensure you get the interview right is to write your story notes immediately after the interview. Write from your personal memory, referring to your handwritten notes as needed to fill in the gaps in your memory. Then, add in the “flavor” from your audio and/or video recordings.
Next week: We will explore different methods of delivering your information and stories, aside from standard prose or “inverted pyramid” format.
Sometimes, good news will literally walk through the front door. But, more often than not, the best stories require a lot of research and digging. Some call this muckraking. Others call it investigative journalism.
Regardless of what you want to call it, the proper term is “enterprise journalism.”
Every time you develop a story solely on research and a desire to answer your own questions, you are engaging in enterprise journalism. If you’re working off of a press release, you’re not really being an “enterprising reporter.”
The best way to be successful at enterprise journalism it to know where to look for good story leads.
Right now, many of the nation’s major newspapers have run away from enterprise journalism, citing a lack of resources. How ironic, considering we now have more information at our immediate disposal than at any other time in recorded history.
That is why they call it the Information Age.
So, this week we’re going to look at information sources that can be highly useful to citizen journalists who are committed to serving their communities. Of course, we’ll look at them from the perspective of my home state, Iowa, but many of the same resources are available in nearly every state.
For a healthy listing of resources for journalists, visit this link.
The U.S. federal government’s public records law is comprised in the Freedom of Information Act. Sadly, the act doesn’t have a lot of teeth in it, and government agencies seem to know that, so compliance is far from perfect.
In Iowa, “local government” includes cities, counties, and local school districts. The best way to know what is going on at those levels of government is to physically attend meetings, or to show up and request information face-to-face.
Iowa’s “sunshine laws” are contained in chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. They are purposely written to be easily interpreted by both government officials, as well as the general public. And, when ambiguity exists — and there is a lot of that — the intent of the law is to assume openness.
In other words, if the law doesn’t prohibit public access to information, it is assumed to be public information. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the information you are looking for. In those cases, it’s always good to just walk up to City Hall and ask for it.
One important rule to remember: you never have to tell a public official who you are, or even why you need the information, in order to expect compliance. Requests don’t have to be made in writing, but sometimes it’s helpful, especially if your request is somewhat complicated.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office website provides a number of useful tips and points of law to consider.
Iowa cities, particularly in light of recent budget woes, generally don’t provide a lot of public information online. But, there is a little bit of useful information you can find on the Internet. In Iowa, all public notices must be published in a local newspaper of general distribution, but you may also find many of those records online at www.iowanotices.org, a website maintained by the Iowa Newspaper Association.
The State of Iowa is arguably one of the most transparent in the U.S., but that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket endorsement of every governmental agency. And, sometimes, documents that arguably would seem public in nature have been deemed confidential.
Like local government, access to state government records is governed by chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. But, other chapters of the code will supersede those provisions of Iowa law. If a government official says information is confidential, ask him or her to specify what provision of Iowa law makes the information protected from public scrutiny.
Some important pieces of information that are deemed public information in Iowa include: public employee salaries, expense reports, and tax returns; governmental bodies’ budgets, budget amendments, and itemized monthly expenses; voter registration information; driver’s license applications; concealed weapons permit holders; and governmental building inspection reports.
There are a number of very useful websites you can research for good story ideas. Here are just a few of the best sites I have used to generate quality enterprise projects.
Department of Inspections & Appeals: visit this website to find out about inspections of healthcare facilities, restaurant inspections, and inspections of amusement park rides and elevators.
Department of Natural Resources: visit this website to find out about air quality inspections, beach monitoring reports, a database of contaminated sites in the state, current confined animal feeding operation permits, and literally thousands of other important pieces of information.
Department of Education: visit this website to find out about No Child Left Behind annual reports, building maintenance and inspection reports, enrollment and projections, area education agency annual progress reports, comprehensive school improvement plans, student achievement data, and thousands of other data collections.
Department of Corrections: visit this website to find out the status of those currently incarcerated in the state penal system, or to look up data on annual performance reports, as well as comprehensive long-range plans for expansion of corrections facilities in the state.
Judicial Department: visit this website to find out about current and pending litigation before the Iowa Supreme Court, as well as criminal and civil proceedings in the state’s district court system.
General Assembly: visit this website to stay up to date on the state legislature. You can research bills that have been submitted, as well as current Iowa Code. The fiscal bureau also provides information about state spending and current and projected budget information.
This shouldn’t be construed as a comprehensive listing of useful government websites, but they are certainly some of the best for developing useful news articles. Beyond these, one of the most useful websites for information is the State Data Center of Iowa website.
If You Need Help
Iowa also provides assistance to citizens who are having difficulties in obtaining public information. The Citizen’s Aide/Ombudsman Office takes these complaints and works to reach a successful resolution of the public information request.
Sadly, the office is underfunded and overtasked, and Iowa Code doesn’t currently provide a lot of teeth to its sunshine laws. Current legislation may change that for citizens’ benefit, so there is real promise of improvement in the future.
Next week: We will cover the various ways to record and archive your interview notes and source materials.