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FOIA requests

Posted by on Oct 29, 2018 in Blog, Legal issues, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism | 0 comments


Data your school district keeps for its own information or to report out to the state or federal government is an important resource for journalists.

It can reveal patterns and statistics that belie the school’s reputation for better or for worse. It can help reveal positive or alarming trends in student discipline, achievement, attendance or safety.

Students often don’t think about accessing this information, but it can help frame the most telling and informative stories at your school.

Make it part of story brainstorming or beat assignments to regularly have students generating ideas for data they would like to find. For example, after a dog search, how many students were cited? How many times did they confiscate a weapon on campus last year? How many students failed a class last term? What was the breakdown of failures by race or gender? How many suspensions have there been for fighting or drugs this year compared to last year? What are the statistics at neighboring schools?

Students should first request the data they seek in a timely manner, but if the district will not release it, use the SPLC Open Records Generator to file a formal Freedom of Information Act request. The website has a template usable to create a formal legal document requesting the records..

Keep in mind, the district is legally bound to keep some information private. It cannot share the specific names of kids who failed or were punished, & etc.

The use of public  records can bring context,depth to key stories


According to the Freedom of Information Act, students can request information and records relevant to stories at their school. If records are not provided, students should submit an open records request through the SPLC letter generator.

Social media post/question:

FOIA: introduce students to the Freedom of Information act and state open records laws.


As per the Freedom of Information Act, students can request information and records relevant to stories at their school. If records are not provided, students should submit an open records request through the SPLC letter generator.


The Freedom of Information Act is a tool students can use to report on schools and for any public document. Use this to make them more familiar with it.

Government agencies keep data on many topics, and often students can legally access it. Some information must legally be reported and shared in searchable and easily accessible forms. Governments keep other records, which they are only required to release upon request.

The Freedom of Information Act and accompanying state open records laws are important tools for reporters to be familiar with. If information citizens are legally allowed to see is not made available upon request, these tools are the first step in formalizing the request process and informing others of how  to use the law.


U.S. Department of State Freedom of Information Act website, U.S. Department of Justice

State-by-State guide to Open Records Laws, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Public Records Letter Generator, SPLC



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Asking questions never goes out of style

Posted by on Sep 3, 2018 in Blog, Legal issues, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


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.

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Pursuit of accurate information clearly
part of scholastic journalism’s mission

Posted by on May 10, 2018 in Blog, Scholastic Journalism | 0 comments


To some administrators, it’s ‘curses, FOIA’ed again’

By Stan Zoller, MJE

When a student journalist pursues a story and, as H.L. Hall would say, “digs” for information, most journalism educators would be pleased.

And so too, you think, would administrators.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s becoming more common for school czars to be rankled by a student’s dogged pursuit of information.

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Be relentless and read the fine print

Posted by on Feb 7, 2018 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Stan Zoller, MJE
Sometime in its advertising history, Hewlett-Packard, now known simply as H-P because people were in too much of a hurry to spell the entire name out, had a campaign that touted its corporate innovation.

Quite simply, all it said was “At Hewlett-Packard, we never stop saying ‘What If. “

The concept was their product development staffs were always looking for ways to improve technology by taking chances and asking what would happen ‘if’ they did something different.

The approach might also work well for journalists in their dogged pursuits of accurate and verifiable information.

At the 2009 JEA convention in Washington, D.C., keynote speaker Jackie Spinner, then a Washington Post reporter, said “the problem with the American media is that it’s more concerned about getting it first than getting it right.”

The unfortunate reality in many cases that is still the case. It’s not unusual for a news organization to post information on social media and within minutes, post an update that corrects a previous post.

An obvious way to avoid this is to fact check and verify before posting a story. However, to really add to the basic information, follow H-P’s lead and ask “what if” about your information.  In other words, go beyond the basic information at hand.

This can be true when using public records. Despite the fact public agencies are required to adhere to open meetings laws, some will go out of their way to avoid meeting the full intent of the law.  School districts seem to be the biggest culprits of this.

Effective deconstruction of materials received through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request entails that journalists – whether students or professional – understand the breadth of their state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as well as the appeal process.

I filed two recent FOI requests using Illinois’ FOIA and have found by asking “what if” I have been able to garner additional information.

The first case involves a school district that heavily redacted information without sufficient explanation for the redaction.  A second FOI request resulted in a similar situation. Rather than accept the district’s response, I filed for a review with the Pubic Access Counselor (PAC) in the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

They agreed to investigate my query and are in the process of weighing the district’s response.  However, the district’s response about the confiscation of the student newspaper dropped more than a subtle hint that the issue was not, in fact, a journalism situation, but likely a personnel and/or personality conflict.

The district’s response also touted student confidentiality, something that was not part of my original two FOI requests. What the district seems to have done was fine-tooth combed the allowable exemptions allowed by the Illinois FOIA. Working with community advocacy attorneys, I thought an additional explanation was due, which led to the filing with the Attorney General’s PAC. Quite simply, it was a matter of asking “what if.”

Another situation, which unfolded last week, involved the use of the FOIA to find out why a village trustee in my hometown was trying to gauge interest in a proposed bill that would allow recreational use of marijuana in Illinois. By gathering emails on the topic, I was able to determine that he had not been transparent in his social media posts, as well as phone calls and emails to me.

This was revealed in a blog I posted, which drew swift reaction, including one from an attorney who said the village had violated the Illinois FOIA by providing me with information that should have been withheld because of the exemptions in the FOIA.

Undaunted, I checked with attorneys who told me that I was right (always a good feeling) and that exemptions are voluntary.  I posted that information, to which he responded, “that’s right.”

As Caesar allegedly said, “Veni, vidi, vici” – I came, I saw, I conquered. While conquering may seem a bit overstated, the bottom line is by utilizing resources and understanding the nuances of the law, I was able to (at least hopefully) protect the public’s right to know.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. Using the FOIA or asking for support from the SPLC or local advocacy attorneys may rattle your administration, but as journalism educators we have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure our student journalists seek the truth and report it using the legal and ethical tools available.

Student journalists need to understand the ramifications of under reporting as well as the rewards of not just getting it first, but also getting it right.

Which in many cases means not only using resources available to them, but also learning to ask, ‘what if?”

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It’s the real thing: journalists at all levels
need to take the lead in offsetting secrecy

Posted by on Jun 30, 2017 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Stan Zoller, MJE

In 1968, Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye teamed up on a hit song, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby.”

While the romantic lyrics may tug at a person’s heartstrings, the message is a good one for journalism educators – there’s nothing like the real thing, baby.

Real journalism. Real reporting. Real information.

Unfortunately, real information has emerged as one of the biggest, if not the biggest challenge for journalists today, whether professional, collegiate, or scholastic. The shrouding of secrecy by public bodies appears to have escalated to the point that recent discussions about a national health care bill were done by Senate Republicans behind closed doors.

Transparency be damned, the American public was left in the dark until GOP leaders announced their latest effort.

So how does this impact scholastic journalism educators? They need to work with their students on being vigilant in keeping track of discussions and decisions made by public bodies that impact their school district or school. These can include city councils, village boards, park districts, and. Of course, school boards.

[pullquote]Many school boards have an unsavory reputation of being little more than rubber stamps for decisions made by district or school administrators. A lack of transparency does not serve constituents well, nor does it give the media, at any level, the opportunity to provide news consumers bias-free and independent information.[/pullquote]

Many school boards have an unsavory reputation of being little more than rubber stamps for decisions made by district or school administrators. A lack of transparency does not serve constituents well, nor does it give the media, at any level, the opportunity to provide news consumers bias-free and independent information.

As their professional and collegiate counterparts, scholastic journalists need to take the lead in getting access to and reporting public information. Advisers can facilitate this by making sure students know how to access public information while being kept up-to-date on the actions of the School Board. Teachers and advisers should, for example, make sure their students:

  • Receive all packets of information issued to the public and media by a school board. These should include, but not be limited to, agendas, meeting minutes, committee meeting schedule, committee meeting minutes and all notifications of any school board or board related committee. Students not familiar with these procedures should check with their state’s attorney general to learn about the state’s open meeting laws and sunshine laws.
  • Understand how a meeting works. Most states are specific as to what can be discussed in executive (also called closed) sessions. It’s fairly common for an agency to reveal the nature of the topic being discussed. Public agencies in most states cannot merely say they are going to meet in closed session. They must stipulate why. For example, a board president needs to say that the board is going into closed sessions to discuss personnel matters, or litigation. They do not have to reveal the name of individuals involved, but open meetings laws prohibit public agencies from deviating from the announced topic. After an executive session, a board needs to vote on the actions, albeit in generic terms, taken in closed session.
  • Understand Freedom of Information laws. FOI laws are not limited to adults or the media; student journalists can file requests for public information using a state’s or federal Freedom of Information Act. Laws vary from state, so teachers and advisers should work with students on getting a copy of their state’s FOI Act. This too should be available from the state’s Attorney General.
  • Know how to use the FOIA. Local advocacy groups as well as the Student Press Law Center offer excellent resources as well as FOIA-request letter generators.

Important steps? Yes, they are. That’s because high school journalism educators have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure their students practice the real thing – journalism that not only informs, but engages news consumers. Awards, staff bonding and designing T-shirts are important to students. But so too is the need for a student media that is the watchdog and voice of the school.

There are advisers who say if students publish or post something a principal or superintendent doesn’t like; they may get mad at them.

If it’s “the real thing” – well reported, verified and independent journalism – there should not be anything to fear.

Besides, if you’re worried about getting someone mad at you because of good media coverage – maybe you shouldn’t be teaching journalism.

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