Emma Polen | News Editor
March 23, 2023
Duquesne’s Institute for Ethics and Integrity in Journalism hosted an open records symposium on March 16. The event, during Sunshine Week, was designed to highlight the importance of holding government agencies accountable and to teach students how to better use Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law.
Tara Bradley-Steck, the directing fellow at the institute, provided a background of why the institute put on this symposium.
“[News] has evolved over the decades,” she said. “In the age of social media, in the age of cable news and opinion-presented news, ethics and integrity have sort of been lost.”
The purpose of the institute is to “educate the public and students about what is good news gathering practice and what isn’t, how a good journalist double checks the facts…with the appropriate sources,” Bradley-Steck said.
“Today, as facts continue to be skewed on so many platforms for a variety of reasons, our ability to access public records is really more important than ever,” said President Ken Gormley during his opening remarks.
To current students, Gormley said, the symposium would also be an opportunity to network to learn from distinguished professionals in the field.
“Ultimately, this is all about giving you, our students, opportunities to become the leaders of tomorrow. And leadership, I firmly believe, begins with ethics and integrity,” he said.
Next, Gormley introduced Liz Wagenseller, keynote speaker and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records and an advocate for government accountability.
Since 2008, Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law has presumed all public records to be public unless proven otherwise, Wagenseller said. Under Right-to-Know, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records was created to ensure that government agencies keep their documents accessible to the public.
Wagenseller provided a hypothetical example to explain how her office keeps government agencies accountable. An agency, such as PennDOT, could know a road needed repair but fails to take action until a driver is injured by falling debris. In this situation, community members and reporters would have the right to demand documents proving the agency’s error.
If a reporter believes a government agency’s denial of a request for documents is not “in good faith,” Wagenseller suggested submitting an appeal to her office (openrecords.pa.gov).
“Information is a powerful tool for persuasion,” Wagenseller said. “Treat it like a skill you need to hone as a journalist.”
Wagenseller’s address was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Paula Reed Ward, a professional fellow in the Institute for Ethics and Integrity in Journalism. The discussion invited panelists from all across Pennsylvania’s media community to speak to challenges of accessing open records and to answer audience members’ questions.
After a reporter has requested records from a government agency, the agency has five days to respond to the request. They may provide the document, refuse to provide it or they may ask for a 30-day extension.
“The things I hear about most are the investigation exemptions…you can’t get the results of an investigation,” said Melissa Melewsky, a panelist from the Media Law Council for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
“We shouldn’t be seeing 30-day delays,” said panelist Paula Knudsen Burke, a Local Legal Initiative staff attorney in Pennsylvania.
Overall, panelists agreed that agencies can gain trust with consumers by being as transparent as possible with public documents. Wagenseller even suggested that agencies make public documents available online to demonstrate their openness.
Trust works both ways, though, as panelists reviewed how to approach document requests.
“In my experience,” Melewsky said, “journalists often get records that aren’t necessarily public under the right to know law because they have a relationship with the agencies that they cover.”
For Melewsky, these informal requests are the most successful and should be utilized first before a more formal request.
Rich Lord, another panelist and the managing editor of PublicSource, a news non-profit in the Pittsburgh area, also suggests that reporters research what exactly they need before submitting their formal request.
“The more you know about your document, the better your chances of getting it,” Lord said. “Be as narrow in your search as possible.”
Lord’s team at PublicSource provides a list of resources to become more informed before making a formal request to agencies: www.publicsource.org/public-records-101/.
Sometimes, informal sources might even lead a reporter to knowing more of the picture, like in a personal experience Lord shared. He met a source in a graveyard that helped him understand the data available for city police before he made his formal request to the police department.
Even if these formal requests are met with denial, panelists said this is not necessarily a dead end.
“When an agency tells you why you aren’t allowed to get these records…you learn something that’s more newsworthy than the records themselves, ” said David A. Strassburger, a panelist and the president of Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky, a civil trial firm.
“If an agency can’t find [the documents], sometimes there’s something in that attestation,” moderator Ward said.
“While it is absolutely a journalist’s privilege not to disclose why they’re making the request [for documents to an agency]…establish trust in your request,” Strassburger added.
What a journalist can publish and what they should publish might be the difference that decides the ethical approach to a story, Melewsky said.
Following the panel, students had the opportunity to learn practical skills for accessing public records online with a workshop with Ward and Lord.
“There’s so many brushes in your palette that you can use, and the Right-to-Know Law is an important one but there are many other things out there,” Burke said.