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Lessons from the long, winding road of public records requests

Craft: Lessons From The Field

Lessons from the long, winding road of public records requests

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(Photo by Lisa Nottingham via Flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by Lisa Nottingham via Flickr/Creative Commons)

In June of 2020, as the pandemic ripped across the nation, Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation launched a collaborative open-records repository, Documenting COVID-19The project collected document sets related to the pandemic obtained through public record requests. 

The goal was simple: use internal correspondence such as emails to understand how public health officials were shaping their policy, what worked and what didn’t. 

The project was an opportunity to take a step back and recognize that while the public records system in this country can be tedious, pushing for transparency and understanding even in the midst of a fast-paced crisis was important. I was hired as a researcher and reporter to monitor COVID-19 hot spots and places that seemed to have variant spikes. 

As the pandemic evolved and the vaccine became available, advocates, community leaders, and health officials became concerned about distribution equity in a state as large and diverse as California. As a California native and the person on the Documenting COVID-19 team responsible for some of the California public records requests, I knew there were important stories related to vaccine distribution across the state. Nevertheless, it was a gamble to undertake a project based purely on stories rooted in what would be found in record releases.

There was no guarantee that records could be obtained timely enough to produce newsworthy stories that were previously unreported.

I sent California Public Records Act requests to every county in the state, with the intention of better understanding California’s vaccine rollout. 

Filing a public records request in California requires a multitude of steps that can be broken down into three parts.

First, the requester has to know where to file. For larger counties, there are often government employees who deal solely with these types of requests and can be found with a quick Google search for a public records officer or PIO. In smaller departments with fewer resources, the request may be one of the many tasks the health department employee must perform, and it takes a phone call or multiple emails to figure that out.

Second, there has to be a realistic understanding of what can be obtained through a records request. Broad requests with general terms like “COVID” that ask for thousands of emails over many months are unlikely to get a quick response, especially from smaller health departments which may be overburdened or understaffed. For instance, during flu season, internal communications may refer to either the flu shot or the COVID-19 vaccine, so being specific in a records request ensures you get what you want. Broad requests can also be more expensive. 

Reporters looking to do this kind of work should budget with the expectation that they will need to pay for the release of some records. For records sought in the public interest, the law allows agencies to waive or reduce fees, but that is not always done. 

On the other hand, extremely narrow requests can turn up empty or out of context. Communicating with the person handling the request can be key to understanding how the department runs its email searches and what filters it uses. Sources may know about a helpful database or particular person within the department who would have email or other communication regarding an issue of interest. Conversations with those sources can help you draft a request that strikes a balance and will be fulfilled in a satisfactory manner.  

Third, and perhaps most importantly: reporters must follow through after the request is filed to make sure it is answered. In California, according to the California Public Records Act, a local agency has 10 days to respond to a request and determine if it has disclosable documents. 

The agency may ask for an extension, but the requester should keep track of when a response is due and be consistent in follow ups. A spreadsheet is one of the easier ways to keep track of requests, especially on a team with multiple people requesting information. It’s important to track all communications, including clarifying a request or discussing it with the agency.

Background knowledge or tips from sources can help craft or inspire requests. Similarly, records can also encourage or open the door to a conversation with a source who may not have been receptive initially. 

This was the methodology I used in tackling my project, supported by an Impact Fund grant from the Center for Health Journalism and done with the help of the Documenting COVID-19 project. Through correspondence I saw in response to my requests, I learned that community clinics did not feel prioritized in the vaccine rollout, agricultural employers advocated for their farmworkers to be prioritized for vaccination, and a state contract with a healthcare company had mixed results across counties. 

My stories quoted correspondence from health departments, allowing readers to see exactly what I saw. Interviews with sources and experts put stories in context and showed how actions detailed in government records had an important impact on people’s lives.

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