Open Records Questing is Punk Rock
This hits us where we live: A British journalist compares data journalism to punk rock.
From the story in The Guardian:
Arguably punk was most important in its influence, encouraging kids in the suburbs to take up instruments, with little or no musical training. It represented a DIY ethos and a shake-up of the old established order. It was a change.
Crucial to it was the idea: anyone can do it.Is the same true of data journalism? Do you need to be part of a major news operation, working for a big media company to be a data journalist?
I have to disagree – the stakes are much higher and lives can be ruined with an errant article. Not so with an errant chord (which can only help).
Given that, on Saturday, June 2, I’m going to be in Lansing, Mich., conducting a training session that gives attendees the tools to file their own public information requests, as well as showing them some places to find out how public money is being spent and on what.
Here are the details and the itinerary for the day.
Some might note that the event, which also involves the conservative Americans for Prosperity group, is heavily tilted toward a Tea Party-styled right wing.
That’s not a group photo that I’ll be sitting for, ever. In fact, I appear to be the only non-conservative on the day’s agenda, which is fine. Accessing the public’s information is a non-partisan game, it’s left-wing, right-wing, no-wing.
It’s your money and when tuition rates go up, check the salaries, the bonuses and the raises at the college that’s raising them.
While I’m not a fan of higher education, everyone who wants in should be allowed, and at a reasonable rate.
If you wonder why your local police force is being reduced, why not check out the pension debt that’s hampering the city’s finances? Better yet, why not check the overtime being wrung up by officers doing off-duty work, which counts toward their pension?
These are things that anyone can do.
I’m doing this presentation in Michigan because it has received some of the worst ratings in terms of transparency over the years, most recently being handed an ‘F’ in a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
This didn’t happen overnight; Michigan has been ranked at the bottom since at least 2006 for financial transparency among its political leaders.
The failure is not just at a state level and it extends into a simple attitude of resistance. Reasons? One would be a media that has historically failed to lobby for changes to the state’s lax disclosure and public records laws. I don’t mean recently, I mean going back a couple of decades. Another is the people that are elected have no interest in being transparency and have no reason to be; constituents and political activist groups aren’t saying a word because transparency doesn’t satisfy a political goal in general. Both Ds and Rs have to cough up the goods. That could make a Republican look bad. Or a Democrat.
Then there’s the money issue. In Michigan, if you file an open records request, the government body can use its publicly funded lawyers to find a flaw in the request, real or imagined, and refuse to give you the records. The public’s only recourse is to take them to court, which costs money. Or the body can charge you an unrealistic sum, as former state Attorney General Mike Cox did to state Dem leader Mark Brewer a couple years ago. Again, the only remedy is the courtroom.
Newspapers have a whole different problem. When you are paying your corporate board of directors salaries ranging from $117,000 to $254,000 a year, as Gannett did in 2010, you are taking away both reporter jobs and money that could be used to pressure government through open records efforts.
This creates a sad landscape, one where bloggers with an agenda use “facts” they have gleaned to satisfy their own agenda in an attempt to get their pals elected or nominated to some political post.
Journalists, ethical ones, state the facts and step away, ideally informing a constituency the next time an election comes around. We don’t do it to satisfy some personal view.
A Tea Partier, for example, who runs around preaching about reform and castigating another political party or person, has no credibility even if their search of public records actually turns up something. To be effective means eschewing any party line.
I’ll be talking about transparency in Michigan on Charlie Langton’s radio show on 1270 WXYT in Detroit tomorrow, Tuesday, May 29, at 7 a.m., and with Tony Conley on 1320 WILS in Lansing on Wednesday at 7:50 a.m.
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