Session: Opening a Shut Case
The process of requesting documents and other record can often be a long and complicated process. But add a private university to the equation and it becomes even more daunting. I would say Elon, in particular, does not do well releasing information (particularly negative) to the student media on campus. On the flip side, we have often not been persistent and vocal enough in our demands for documents and other records. At this session, led by Mark Witherspoon (Iowa State University) and Chuck Baldwin (University of South Dakota), there was one particular statement that stood out and will stick with me:
“You have to believe there is no information you can’t get or don’t deserve.”
As Witherspoon put it, journalism (done right, that is), is the best public service you can do. It is our responsibility to dig and then dig some more and then dig some more until we find the information that the public needs to know. When approaching sources, it’s all about attitude and possessing a sense of confidence that you are capable of obtaining what you need. One of my goals for The Pendulum when we return to campus is to designate an investigative team of a reporter, photographer and multimedia editor who will be responsible for digging up the stories that students need to know about. These aren’t stories that can be turned around in one week’s time, as our production schedule typically demands. They are stories that can take weeks, even months, but the stories that matter the most. The stories that expose corruption, challenge authority, change perspectives or right a wrong.
Here’s a few more tips from the session:
- Create (and enforce) a beat system at the newspaper that ensures reporters at out not only gathering story ideas but building relationships with sources and gaining their trust.
- Do research beforehand on sources and lead with friendly conversation rather than immediately jumping into your questions.
- Have a sense of rage when documents or information is kept from you. Always ask the person why and then report it every time you are denied access.
- Act as if the 1st Amendment applies to your school, even if you know they legally don’t have to provide something.
- Get creative with how to educate people about your rights as a journalist – once they know what you’re willing to do, they’ll listen.