Sunshine Week 2015 is coming up and journalists around the nation will participate the week of March 15 through March 21. An annual event, Sunshine Week calls on journalists to shed light on issues of open government and have conversations with their readers about the importance of open and transparent government, whether that government body is a municipality or a large federal agency.
This year, the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, in collaboration with the Minnesota Newspaper Association, is reaching out to newsrooms and student journalists across the state to cover and look into the increasing amount of public work that is being done by private organizations. Private charter schools, surveying firms, even private police forces are being used more and more to conduct business that was once the purview of public officials. College campuses are not immune to this phenomenon either, increasingly relying on private foundations to raise revenue and communicate on behalf of the university or partnering with private companies to handle student services like policing, dining or financial aid.
To contribute to this year’s Sunshine Week event, which we are dubbing #SunshineMN, we are asking professional and student newsrooms around the state to produce at least one story that raises awareness in your community about public work that is being done by private organizations. Our aim is to shed a light on transparency and accountability issues that may arise as a result of these public-private partnerships.
Conducting a “transparency audit” is simple. We are asking journalists across the state to obtain documents related to public-private partnerships. Such documents could include: contracts, audits, bids, budgets, any reports required by law, etc. – any documents that help shed light on work being done in service of the public by private organizations.
The final step is to report on what you’ve discovered. Again the aim of sunshine week is to tell the public about importance of open and transparent government. Was it easy to obtain information? Were there roadblocks? What did the information you found say about the public-private partnership? How transparent or accountable to the public is the agency/program it is serving? Your reporters can also go even further, especially if they make some interesting discoveries during their search.
We will highlight the stories that professional and student newsrooms publish as part of Sunshine Week on this website, our Facebook page and on Twitter using the #SunshineMN hashtag. We will also publish a list of participating newsrooms. To add yourself to the list email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also let us know if you have questions, comments or concerns.
Check back to this page, and mnspj.org for #SunshineMN updates . This page will continue to be updated with useful information including contact information for freedom of information experts, resources on open government law and making information requests, and story ideas for your newsroom.
Good luck with your information requests!
Resources for Reporters:
SPJ’s freedom of information how-to guide for students
SPJ’s freedom of information how-to guide for professionals
Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press Open Government Guide for Minnesota
RCFP Federal Open Government Guide
IFOIA.org help with making state and federal information requests (project of RCFP)
The Student Press Law Center, a national first amendment and open government organization for student journalists
Student Press Law Center public records request letter generator
Sunshine Week Experts and Contacts:
MN SPJ Project Lead:
La Crosse Tribune Education Reporter
Media law attorney representing the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
Director, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law
School of Journalism and Mass Communication,University of Minnesota
Tips for Successful Information Requests:
Ask for your information early. Organizations can balk at requests for information on a tight deadline. Give them some time to get the information you want and allow for follow-ups, appeals and interviews about the documents you wish to report on.
Be specific. Being overly broad in your request can cause hassles for both sides. Consider the organization’s view if your request is too generic or confusing. If your request doesn’t make sense, they can’t get the information you need. If you only need one document like a contract or email but ask for a broad assortment, it can lengthen the time of request and the agency can require more in fees for the time searching and copying. Ask for narrowly defined documents and specific dates when possible, and if you are unsure of what a document is called, ask first before making the request.
Make personal contact. It is easier to work with people who know you and you have a working relationship with. An information request from a stranger is easier to ignore, and you never know what new story ideas or leads might come from a meeting to discuss your request.
Don’t take no for an answer. You can appeal an organization’s decision to deny your request, or you might realize you need to modify what you are looking for. At the very least, a denial is a story in its own right if an organization is denying you access to public information and records.
Sunshine Week Story Ideas:
Follow the money: Is a private business or organization making large profits from running an institution or providing a service that used to be under public purview?
Hiring: Both local governments and units of government spend tens of thousands of dollars on hiring top level employees like university presidents or county administrators. What are they paying for and what do they get for their money?
Student Debit Cards: Does your college or a university have a relationship with a local or federal financial institution? Some student IDs double as debit or credit cards, and is there a financial arrangement involved with this relationship between the university and the bank?
Transparency: Are private contractors as transparent or accountable as the public agency or staff they replaced? Check and see why kinds of reports the public agency was creating in the past and compare that to the reporting requirement for the private contractor. What does the public not know now that is used to?
Relationships: Is the mayor’s private business collecting trash for the city? Is the brother of a municipal official on the board of the lobbying firm representing the city at the Legislature? What is the relationship between between the public and the private organization they are working with?
Sunshine Week 2015 Activities are brought to you by: