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The Journalistic Implications of Overdue Public Records

Journalists, reporters, and investigative writers rely on a number of sources to build cases and write stories. Public records are some of the most important documents that journalists use in their research, but they aren’t always as easy to access as they should be. Find out what rights reporters have to these documents and how overdue public records can affect journalists’ ability to serve the public.

What Are Public Records and Who Can Access Them?

As a general rule, anything that’s filed with the local, state, or federal government is a public record. They may remain on file for a specific period of time, or public records may be available for an undetermined period of time. The following types of documents are usually considered public records:

  • Property deeds and foreclosures
  • Marriage licenses and birth and death certificates
  • Civil and criminal court histories and judgments
  • Credit histories and bankruptcies
  • Nursing home inspection reports

By and large, public records are available to members of the general public. That means anyone from a government official to an experienced journalist to an average person can get access to public records.

As more government agencies move toward digital access, it has become increasingly easier to search for and find public records online. Not all government agencies have made public records available online, however, and some have only allowed for basic online searches. In many cases, journalists and members of the public can do a preliminary search online, but they must submit a formal request to the agency to get access to copies of the documents. This can mean long waiting periods that vary from agency to agency.

How Does the Freedom of Information Act Affect Public Records?

Since the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted in 1967, this important piece of legislation has changed the landscape for public records dramatically. For more than five decades, the FOIA has granted journalists and other members of the public the power to request access to public records.

Under the FOIA, journalists can request public records for virtually any reason or any type of investigative report. They don’t have to provide specifics about why they want access to certain records. This helps to keep information flowing freely and prevents the government from unnecessarily censoring records from select people or organizations.

While the FOIA protects most federal public records, there are some exceptions. The following nine categories are exempt from the FOIA, and government agencies can withhold this information from journalists and members of the public:

  • Classified information that may relate to national defense or foreign policy
  • Internal government practices and personnel guidelines
  • Public records that other laws exempt
  • Businesses’ trade secrets and confidential data
  • Legally protected communications exchanged between government agencies
  • All personnel and medical files
  • Information about and records on law enforcement officers
  • Data regarding bank supervision
  • Select geological and geophysical information

In addition, some types of public records are excluded from the FOIA, which means journalists don’t have the right to request these records. These include the following:

  • Ongoing criminal investigations of which the subject is unaware
  • Informant records if the subject’s status is not yet confirmed
  • Classified foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorism records

What Doesn’t the FOIA Cover?

It’s important to remember that while the FOIA is a far-reaching piece of legislation, it only applies to federal documents. That means state and local government agencies and the public records they keep aren’t subject to these guidelines. Since these smaller government agencies can design their own policies and timelines, they can cause even bigger headaches for journalists who are working on deadlines and need quick access to public records.

While some state and local government agencies have opted to enable easier access to public records, many have passed legislation that protects members of the public by keeping these documents private. For instance, the state of Maryland considers adoption records confidential, but a person of interest, such as the adoptee, may request the document’s release. Since many agencies place privacy over access, this can be a stumbling block for journalists.

How Do Overdue Public Records Limit Journalists’ Abilities?

In addition to giving journalists the right to request access to public records, the FOIA stipulates a timeframe for responses. While timeframes vary among state and local agencies, federal agencies must respond to a records request within 20 days. If they don’t meet this deadline, federal agencies can’t request the search or copy fees that they would normally be able to collect.

While the FOIA does allow for some leeway in the 20-day timeframe, especially if the agency needs more information from the requester or if the request requires extensive research, the deadline is typically firm. However, many journalists find that federal agencies rarely abide by the 20-day deadline, and smaller government agencies have an even worse on-time record.

Since most reporters and journalists rely on public records to do essential research and compile hard-hitting investigative reports, overdue records severely limit the work they can do. As Justin Murphy of the Democrat & Chronicle reports, virtually all of his hard-hitting stories rely on unchallenged access to public records. Even though he should be able to access all non-exempt and non-excluded public records within weeks, many of his records requests to state agencies have lingered unanswered for months, limiting his ability to keep the public informed.

While this is undoubtedly frustrating for journalists, members of the public should find these missed deadlines vexing, too. After all, investigative reports are essential for exposing serious problems, public health issues, instances of corruption, and other cases that otherwise may have remained out of the public eye. Without unobstructed and timely access to public records, both journalists’ work and public knowledge suffers.

Waiting long periods for public records can seriously impact journalists’ abilities to keep the public apprised, but you can easily gain access to many records online. Do a public record search on CheckThem.com to track down public records on yourself, your family members, and even your neighbors. Discover everything from addresses and social media profiles to civil lawsuits and arrest records, all in one eye-opening place.