With its 11th birthday fast approaching, it can now be comfortably considered a chronological tween.

But little about Sunshine Week is juvenile or superfluous.

In fact, with the next installment of the weeklong celebration set to kick off March 13, a case could be made that newspaper publishers and editors need to refocus their attention to open government more than ever before.

Once again, the Society of Professional Journalists has provided a meaty guidebook, giving newsrooms a framework to follow if they’re lacking ideas.

In preparation for Sunshine Week, SPJ has been kind enough to allow GateHouseNewsroom.com to draw from its freedom of information toolkit.

HOW OPEN IS YOUR COMMUNITY?

One idea, although time-consuming, is a community audit, which tests the limits of open government in various agencies.

On its website, SPJ notes:

… somewhere in your community – right now – a citizen is being denied access to public records. For that citizen, the denial represents what might very well be the first and only time that parent, or homeowner, or environmental activist, has requested information from their government.

So, an audit will be useful, but how do you pull off such a massive undertaking? This takes planning and plenty of it.

First, identify your network. Can you partner with other local journalists — the Associated Press, college journalism students, other newspapers or non-profit journalism entities — to help take this on? The more, the merrier, and the results can be shared universally. Remember, this is simply testing the system, and then illustrating the results. It should, theoretically, help open the door for future stories, so numerous agencies should be interested.

sunshineweekbannerNext, create a questionnaire that multiple auditors will fill out after requesting information, so that you can be sure the findings are quantifiable. Looking for specifics on the contract for the schools superintendent? Keep the request consistent among districts.

The results often illustrate a striking difference in the availability of information.

For example, the Daytona Beach News-Journal teamed with 30 other news agencies in 2013 to conduct a statewide audit of county court clerk’s office to get hard copies of two civil cases and two criminal cases throughout Florida’s 67 counties.

According to a story written by Mike Schneider of the Associated Press, the audit produced the following findings:

— In just over half of the counties, there was a delay in retrieving the records — whether it was because personal information needed to be redacted, because the file wasn’t yet in the clerk’s office or because the file couldn’t be found.

— The need to review and redact a file of personal information led to some kind of delay in more than a fifth of the total records requested by the news organizations.

— Of the 61 files that required some kind of personal information removed, the delay was a day or more in almost two-thirds of the cases. In four cases, the delay was three days.

— In seven cases, no answer was given about how long it would take to remove the personal information, or a tester was told she would be contacted by the clerks’ office when the redacting was finished but never contacted.

— In other cases, court records couldn’t be retrieved because a deputy clerk was out with a sick child, a clerk’s office employee said she was too busy to retrieve them and, six times, computer problems prevented the records from being looked up electronically.

— The testers were asked to identify themselves in 18 counties, even though that is not required under state law — the records are supposed to be available to anyone.

That audit was released throughout the news organizations, and helped to spotlight inconsistencies throughout the entire state.

Here are some more tips from SPJ:

— Ask your auditors to keep track of their round-trip mileage, so you can create an overall number for your audit. This is particularly effective in large western states….”Auditors drove 10,000 miles to test the state of Nevada’s FOI law.”

— Think hard about visiting all agencies on the same day. It helps maintain the element of surprise.

— Make sure that you have worked out story play and exclusives. This is particularly important in multi-paper alliances. What happens if something extraordinary is discovered? Does everyone run the same content on the same day? Do you run the first installment on Sunday for maximum impact? These questions should be worked through in advance.

— Be extremely transparent about your methodology. Many audits have a “nerd box” explaining how the series was conducted, the standards for compliance versus noncompliance, and other judgment calls. Your readers and viewers should be able to clearly see how such judgment calls were made.

— Put everything you can on the web – even field notes! You’ll end up with far more material than you could ever get into the newspaper or on air, so use the power of technology to expand the news hole.

Need more ideas? Check out SPJ’s full FOI toolkit here.

And to read an interview with Aaron Frechette, the editorial page editor of the Fall River (Massachusetts) Herald News, click here.

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