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NYT’s Sarah Cohen will make you realize how much better your public records game could be

NYT’s Sarah Cohen will make you realize how much better your public records game could be

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Sarah Cohen, editor of The New York Times’ computer-assisted reporting team, has an extended metaphor she likes to use to relate one of the most basic challenges of public records reporting.

Cohen asks journalists to imagine walking into a restaurant that has no sign, no menu and no inclination to guide you. So, you start by asking for some food. “What do you want?” the waiter asks. “What do you got?” you ask. “What would you like?” they counter. After a few rounds of this, you suggest lasagna. “Oh no, sorry, you’d have to go to an Italian restaurant for that,” the waiter responds.

“The whole problem about pubic records is that you get into this kind of circular logic,” Cohen recently told fellows at the 2015 California Data Fellowship. “I don’t know what I’m asking for; they won’t tell me what I can ask for.”

That scenario highlights one of the central themes of Cohen’s talk, which is that reporters need to know exactly what records are available long before they formally request them.

“Before you ever put pen to paper on your public records request, there’s usually quite a bit of reporting that you have to do,” Cohen said. “In order to have a successful public records request, you need to know precisely what you’re asking for.”

As a reporter covering health care in Florida, Cohen asked the state health agency for a copy of every blank form they had. When the agency later told her they didn’t keep records on nursing staffing levels, she went to her box of blank forms and found the state’s form requiring hospitals to report such data. That kind of bureaucratic obliviousness, intentional or otherwise, is common in government agencies:

“They have no clue what they collect,” Cohen said. “The idea is to try to get around them so you can ask for something specific. That’s what I mean about the amount of reporting that goes on before — if you can figure out what to ask for, they can’t tell you they don’t have it. So then you can start on the real argument, which is whether they’ll let you have it, not whether it exists.”

"Before you ever put pen to paper on your public records request, there’s usually quite a bit of reporting that you have to do. In order to have a successful public records request, you need to know precisely what you’re asking for." — Sarah Cohen, The New York Times

Cohen broke down the quest for records into sections: 1) Does it exist? 2) How hard am I going to fight to get it? and 3) What form am I going to get it in?

“What you want to do is get past as many of those steps before you contact them as possible,” she said.

Such pre-reporting will typically involve background interviews with a half-dozen or more people who work for the agency in question. The idea is to figure out how it functions and how its employees do their jobs. “How does it work? What documents do you fill out?” Cohen will ask employees. “You’re really just taking it from the beginning to the end. Have them walk you through the system.”

Here are five key lessons from Cohen’s master class on public records reporting:

1. Understand the law. “There’s no point in asking for something that the law precludes you from getting,” Cohen said. “It’s good to know how much discretion someone has to give you something, and what gives them that discretion.”

A good place to start is a state’s guide to their public records laws. Here, for example, is a guide for California, issued by the League of California Cities. “They’re often instructions to city and state officials saying what you have to do honor laws,” Cohen said. “Read it from front to back. Understand exactly what you have a right to and what you don’t.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also offers a series of invaluable guides on laws and rights of reporters to obtain various records.

Knowing the relevant laws for the types of records you’re seeking is a crucial first step, but that doesn’t mean government officials won’t have discretion in what they release. Often, reporters will have to negotiate an agreement with officials over how they’ll use the requested records. This is especially true in the case of the federal government, Cohen said.

“There is virtually nothing in the federal government that is open by definition, and virtually very, very little that is totally confidential, but there is a huge middle ground that they can make a decision on what to do with it.”

2. Know public records from “propaganda.” Cohen, not one to mince words, will refer to things such as open government portals and department websites as “propaganda.” Her point isn’t that reporters should shun these, but rather they need to be aware that these sources are essentially “what the government wants you to know, when it wants you to know it, in the form it that it wants you to have it.”

Gaining access to genuine records, or “the flotsam and jetsam that gets left behind when they’re done governing,” requires more reportorial diligence, but also produces far more valuable insights into how government is actually functioning.

3. Statistics are a starting point, not an end. Government reports are rife with statistics based on data the government collects, and it can be tempting for reporters to take such stats at face value. Instead, Cohen urges reporters to ferret out the granular level data behind the statistics.

“Stop thinking about statistics as an end — it’s a beginning as a way to find the records you want to look for,” Cohen said. She instructs journalists to “ignore the statistics completely.” Instead, think of statistics as a signpost: They can point you to the “micro data” underlying them.

Once you’ve obtained such data through a records request, you can perform your own analysis, without worrying over how the data were massaged into shape.

4. Hunt and gather your way to hidden treasures. Since government agencies don’t provide a “menu” of records and databases to choose from, it’s up to reporters to cobble together their own menus. One way to do this is to start poking around government websites, when you’re off deadline. Look for intriguing names of divisions. Look for online forms that people fill out.

For example, before giving a talk in North Carolina, Cohen spent a little time online and discovered an agency called the Motor Fleet Management Division. That promptly led to a form that allows users to report the misuse of state vehicles by government employees. And where there’s a form, there’s inevitably a database rife with story possibilities.

“Sometimes, just by looking at names of agencies, you can come up with some great stories,” Cohen said.

5. Pity the poor PIO: According to Cohen, the real problem for most reporters is that they know more than the public information officers (PIOs). As a result, reporters should do everything they can to help PIOs find what they’re looking for — help them help you.

She also advises journalists to be mindful that once they’ve obtained a database or key records, the agency in question essentially loses control of the story. That sets off alarm bells.

“For a PIO, this is really scary stuff,” Cohen said. “This can get them fired if they can’t control your story. Just try to treat them like human beings. There is nothing good that can happen to them by helping you get this information and data. And everything bad can happen to them. Just remember they’re coming from a place of no power and total risk.”

[Photo by Cabinet Office via Flickr.]

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