Transparency needs to be crystal clear
– at all levels
by Stan Zoller
In an effort to enhance transparency and public access to some records, legislators in two states are sending a message to some schools – show us your privates.
Bills are pending in the Texas and Illinois state houses would require police departments or campus safety departments at private colleges and universities to comply with the Freedom of Information Act in those states.
According to the Student Press Law Center, the bill pending in Texas “…would clarify that a private college’s police department is a “governmental body with respect to information relating to law enforcement activities,” eliminating its ability to withhold some law enforcement records from the public.”
The Illinois bill carries essentially the same language. The SPLC reports the Illinois bill is actually “A proposed amendment to the Private College Campus Police Act would require campus police departments at private universities… to publicly disclose any information that other law enforcement agencies are required to provide under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.”
Both bills represent an effort in two states to ensure that information regarding public safety is not masked by a private school. What lies ahead depends on what lawmakers in both states do with their respective bills.
So why are these bills important to scholastic journalism teachers and their student journalists?
Because both bills represent an effort in two states to ensure that information regarding public safety is not masked by a private school. What lies ahead depends on what lawmakers in both states do with their respective bills.
Hopefully both bills will pass and the public, not to mention lawmakers will realize an informed citizenry can make solid decisions based on well balanced media reports.
Transparency and access to public records is not college thing, nor is it just for the professional press. Scholastic journalists have the same rights to accessing public records and should be able to do so without fear of repercussion from teachers, department chairs or administrators.
Information available through the FOIA is public and Journalism educators should encourage their students to use their state’s FOIA to ensure that they have solid background information about public matters – whether it is an action by a school board, or transaction by a school district.
Journalism educators need to be well versed in their state’s FOIA so they can, obviously, advise their students on not only what is available via the FOIA, but the process involved in accessing public information.
Information obtained from the FOIA can be enlightening. Media teachers and advisers need to carefully work with their students about how information will be used. Some information, especially from police reports, can be detailed and appear sensitive.
Some administrators will claim it’s “personal information and you can’t use that.”
Hardly. It’s public information and yes, it can be used.
As previously noted, however, it may need to be used judiciously. If so, it’s imperative the reporter and media clearly note that the information was obtained by using the FOIA. No matter if information used in a media report or not, it does provide student journalists with outstanding background information. Obviously, it’s an excellent example of a direct source that adds depth to a story.
While administrators may decry its use, what that can’t decry is that a student journalist has done his or her homework and is practicing quintessential transparency.
And if they can’t accept transparency, they shouldn’t be an administrator.