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When law and ethics and good journalism combine

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PART 1 OF a 3-PART SERIES

An experienced Ohio newspaper adviser teams up with a former student — who now has a law degree — to teach the staff about using public records. An alleged rape on campus requires student editors to stand their ground accessing information about it. Once they have details about the incident, they have to decide just what they should – or maybe should not – use. It’s a tale that has all the makings of excellent reporting.

The backstory

Journalism teacher Natalie Sekicky admits she’s lucky. Anyone with a full teaching load and student media to advise can usually only dream about being able to put staffers in teams and work with them as they investigate complicated, in-depth stories.

But then Sekicky’s former editor-in-chief Emily Grannis, a college journalism major, started giving “quick lessons” about record requests to the J1 classes while she was home on breaks. When she entered a nearby law school, she said she was able to work “more formally” with the Shaker Heights students.

She started with them about a month into the year, after Sekicky “had taught them about the inverted pyramid and the basics,” Grannis said.  The two put students in teams covering different topics, and each student had to use information obtained with a records request.

Grannis, who led the Shakerite to a Pacemaker one of her two years as editor, started making records requests and learning their value before she even got to Ohio University. Sekicky said record requests had always been a part of the training she gives her students. But after Grannis’ college experiences and then the law degree, “Emily has expertise I just don’t have,” Sekicky said.

“What documents can you get even before you start?” Grinnis said she asked the student teams. First she helped them word their records requests, anticipate the responses they’d get, then improve their drafts.

They had to learn “how to craft a request that’s specific enough to get the information you want but general enough to catch something interesting,” she said she told them.

For those without her on-the-street experience and law degree, Grannis recommends “reading up on basic Sunshine laws” and learning what the options are. Besides the Student Press Law Center site, she said The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also offers good material in their guides. She currently has a year-long fellowship with this Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

The Shaker Heights students’ investigations, many of them related to information in school records, went in the print edition of the newspaper and, more recently online, as the staff has focused on its Web presence.  Each was a two-page spread, “cohesive packages, where they can see all their work come together,” Grannis said.

Such work has included an investigation of the Chinese language program, how the funding had changed from partial support from Hanban (Confucius Institute Headquarters) to full funding from the Shaker Heights school district.  Shane McKeon, whose reporting for the article included gathering records and  information from the district treasurer, is now the Shakerite editor-in-chief.

“We’ve learned the importance of documents to which you are entitled,” McKeon said.

Both he and Grannis say the school district has been good about the records requests. “They weren’t used to so many requests,” Grannis said, “but I give them a lot of credit for being very responsive.”

“We’ve gotten district records from the treasurer and SAT scores — they’ve been completely forthcoming,” McKeon said.

Other agencies have not been, Grannis said.  “Police weren’t used to such a hard process,” McKeon said. Last year a situation with a student who had a handgun at school required “some maneuvering” for reporters to get information from the police.

A May 2012 depth report that required public records came from a team of four female staffers who wrote about “Hostile Hallways” and one did a sidebar about three sexual assaults in school being reported to police in the last six months.

These experiences have made a difference to the staff, those involved say. Campus city editor John Vodrey says, “Knowing that we should be able to have that record” has helped him. McKeon agrees. “It helps you learn how to be stubborn when you know you’re in the right.”

Next: Part 2. The incident. An alleged rape at school means McKeon and Vodrey must apply what they have learned and get some extra help from Grannis.

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