Creating Open Records Requests, Part 1
An important part of journalistic coverage is knowing how to complete open records requests for supportive data that add depth and perspective to your school and local reporting. This lesson will help prepare students to do that and show them why it is an important part of the information gathering process.
- Students will become familiar with open records, what they are used for and how to gain access to them.
- Students will create an open records request using the SPLC open records request generator.
- Students will outline a future story for their student media in which they would use open records information and received teacher and/or peer feedback.
Common Core State Standards
|Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
|Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
|Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
|Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
60-75 minutes (with ideas for expansion into multi-day approach)
Materials / resources
Blackboard or whiteboard
Teacher laptop and digital projector
Handout: Story Idea Planning Sheet
Handout: Open Records Evaluation Checklist
1. Warm up — 5 minutes
Ask the students “what are open/public records and how would you use them in your reporting?” Make a list of their initial responses, correct and incorrect on the board. As the discussion continues, ask, “ How would be obtain them?” and “How can we used them in our reporting?” These questions bridge into the readings.
2. Group reading time—20-30 minutes
Using computers, tablets, or printed copies, have students access the Access to High School Records article and Freedom of Information Law Primer. Students should read the material, taking notes as needed. When done, ask students to make a “QCC” (stands for “questions, comments, clarifications) chart by dividing a page into three columns. In the first column, they should write down any questions from the readings that they have. In the second column, they should make comments about the reading—things they’d like to remember, summaries, important points, etc. In the third column, they can write down things that need to be clarified or that they’d like to learn more about.
After 10-20 minutes, have students provide share from their notes for further clarification or discussion.
3. Teacher-led discussion—20 minutes
Note student comments on the board and ask if they have seen public records used in commercial media reporting. Discuss, and then ask how they think such records can strengthen reporting in their student media. Make a list of potential story ideas where public/open records could play significant roles.
Key points that might be made in the discussion and from the readings:
- Freedom of Information law falls into five roughly defined categories: federal FOI, state open record laws, federal open meetings law, state open meetings laws and miscellaneous FOI provisions.
- To request records, most state laws say that all you have to do is go to the person responsible for keeping the documents you’re looking for and ask for them. To formally request records from a federal agency or to request records from a state agency when you think they might not act on an oral request, a written request is required.
- In writing your letter, be sure to cite the relevant FOI law and note the specifics relating to how much time the law gives an agency to respond to your request and any penalties associated with non-compliance. Also, make sure that you “reasonably describe” the material that you want.
- There are exceptions to FOIA records requests in the reading. Make sure students understand them. (Coverable in more detail in a second lesson).
- Anyone can ask for public records and a public agency must share them if they keep them.
- There might be a reasonable cost.
- The key to successful access to public records is preciseness in what you seek in a limited timeframe. Like: “Salary records of all teachers and administrators in 2017”
- Every state has its own open records law, each saying essentially it is the public’s right to know what government officials at all levels are doing.
- Students ought to be able to obtain any record by making an informal request in person politely and as specific as possible. If that does not work, students would use the SPLC Public Records Letter Generator.
- The Access article gives specific story idea and agencies from whom to seek information.
- The reading refers to FERPA (see JEA law and ethics lesson on FERPA) as a caution to not violating individual rights to privacy.
- Students should not be afraid to use this public information tool. It is part of their duty to be as complete as possible when reporting stories the public has not only a right to know but a need to know as well.
4. Large group application—15 minutes
Now, ask students what kinds of information they might want to know about their school or city that they could find through a public records request. Write a list on the board for students to reference as they create their own records request. (5 minutes)
Direct students to SPLC’s Public Records Letter Generator and introduce how to use it, based on instructions on the site and previous discussions. Students will each fill one out and have the teacher check it out, but they will NOT send the letter. Emphasize this ahead of time.
It is important NOT to send these requests since you can overburden the public agencies with requests you do not intend to use. Save use of the records generator for actual stories.
Open Records lesson Part 2 is a part of this lesson sequence and looks at what types of records do not have to be provided.
Individual project suggestions
Each student will, for homework due at a time chosen by the teacher, plan a story in which they will make use of the public records they sought. See Open Records Part 2 for more information.
Use the story planning form (attached) and complete all categories. Option: Students might first try to gain access to public records for their story idea in person, using the guidelines of the SPLC generator.
The teacher (or editors if the class publishes student media) can use the attached Story Idea Planning Sheet as homework, an additional lesson at a time of their choosing or some other coaching process. If the exercise is to be graded, criteria could be based on the following:
- The concept of the story and news value
- The quality and credibility of information gathered
- The information sought through public records
- The platform(s) to be used and whether it is most effective
- Choice of visual elements, including social media
- Potential legal and ethical issues
- Anticipated problems and potential solutions
- Other as relevant to your student media
See the Open Records Evaluation Checklist for an evaluation guide.
The teacher or student editors might choose to make this a multi-part lesson spanning multiple days. Subsequent days would focus entirely on student story coaching, one-on-one discussions and critique of each other’s story ideas. The students can discuss additions, alternatives and other suggestions for change. The coaching process would involve one-on-one peer coaching and comment using the Story Idea Planning Sheet.
For students unfamiliar with some of the media choices on the form, the assignment can be limited to sections chosen by the teacher or media editors.