Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Newsonomics: What was once unthinkable is quickly becoming reality in the destruction of local news
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Jan. 21, 2020, 12:21 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   January 21, 2020

Accountability journalism is fueled by access to public records, documents, and data — stories like how a state government relies on secretive software to do most of its work, or how government agencies overcite terrorism as a reason to withhold records. Public records can even, in some places, tell us how local officials spend their time on the internet during the workday.

But getting those records can be a long, grueling process that requires reporters to go back and forth with records custodians, negotiate fees, and often appeal initial denials. It’s time-consuming and can be a minefield to navigate.

Recognizing that those challenges are detrimental to local news, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today launched the Local Legal Initiative to provide journalists with pro bono legal support in five states with unique public records problems.

As part of a two-year, $10 million grant from the Knight Foundation, news organizations in each state will be able to turn to an RCFP attorney assigned to their jurisdiction for legal help in their accountability work. The idea is to help newsrooms scale up their investigative journalism by offering services like gaining access to records, defending against lawsuit threats, and pre-publication review of stories.

The five states were selected from 45 applications submitted. Those states and some of the issues they face:

  • Colorado: Record requesters often have to take their appeal denials to court because the state doesn’t have an administrative appeals process.
  • Oregon: The state’s first public records advocate resigned due to interference by the governor’s office, and produced documentation about the limitations to records.
  • Oklahoma: In addition to supporting journalists in getting records, the initiative will partner with the Native American Journalists Association to help reporters cover the state’s 39 federally recognized tribes.
  • Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law, passed 11 years ago, still keeps some important records from being released.
  • Tennessee: Many nonprofit and nontraditional news outlets serve undercovered communities around the state, and reporters need help with “access to body camera video and overly broad applications of law enforcement exemptions.”

RCFP is seeking funders who want to match Knight’s investment so that the program can continue beyond the next two years or expand.

“The enthusiasm and responses we received from across the country make clear that there is a significant need for pro bono legal assistance for local journalists nationwide,” Katie Townsend, the Reporters Committee’s legal director, said in a release. “At a time when important local reporting is routinely stymied, we stand ready to help journalists and news organizations overcome the legal roadblocks they too often face.”

Read the full announcement here.

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