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Asking questions never goes out of style

by Stan Zoller, MJE
A Chicago TV station has the call letters WMAQ. Its origins go back to the 1922 when The Chicago Daily News started the station. Its call letters were known to mean “We Must Ask Questions,” which today would not only be known as solid journalism, but also fact checking.

The Daily News sold the station to NBC in 1931, but the legacy of the call letters continues. Whether it was the intention of William Quinn, publisher of The Chicago Daily News when it started WMAQ to promote good journalism or people just assigned those words to WMAQ, one thing remains constant — asking questions remains a vital part of journalism today.

When journalists – whether students or professional — have even the faintest inkling about something, they need to ask questions. This is true when covering a speech, doing an interview, attending a press conference or a school board meeting.

When the Evanston (Illinois) Township High School Board of Education debated the rationalization of confiscating The Evanstonian, the school’s award-winning newspaper, there appeared to be some holes in the discussion.

As I noted in a previous blog, I used Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to try and get some answers. After filing two FOI requests, I still wasn’t satisfied with the submitted materials and still had questions.

That was not, however, the end of the line. In Illinoispersons who file an FOI request, can ask for a review by a Public Access Counselor in the state Attorney General’s office will then conduct a review of contested FOI request and, if warranted, render a decision.

If your students plan to use the FOI laws in your state, it’s imperative they fully understand not only the procedures for filing a FOI request, but also an appeal process, if one exists. Like filing a FOI request, meeting deadlines and procedures are essential.

In the case of my appeal, it took more than six months, but I received a ruling with an exhaustive explanation. Quite simply, the AG’s office noted that ETHS School Board “improperly withheld certain records.” The 17-page opinion detailed each section of Illinois’ FOIA that ETHS claimed it adhered to.

So, what’s the lesson here? Public bodies need to be held accountable by all journalists. FOI laws are tools for journalists – and the public at large – to use in making sure public bodies – including school boards – are transparent and accountable.

When all is said and done it’s important remember four simple letters – WMAQ.

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