Digging in the Lone Star State : techniques of Texas record-seeking reporters
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This thesis examines the role of journalists in the open records-seeking process by identifying factors that may contribute to a record-seeker’s success at obtaining public information. Set in Texas, this study also looks specifically at how journalists operate under the Texas Public Information Act. Previous research has indicated that only a sliver of journalists employ open records laws in their regular reporting. Through elite interviews and an autoethnographic analysis of the researcher’s journal from a yearlong reporting project, this study examines journalists who regularly request records and how they use the laws to their benefit, the barriers and challenges they face in obtaining materials, and the role of records custodians. All participants have become experts on state and federal laws on their own, mostly learning on-the-job. Only one received formal training in school – even then, only the very basics of filing a federal request – before becoming a journalist. Their self-taught expertise gives them confidence in knowing what records should be released, which enables them to stand up for themselves in disagreements with records custodians. Rarely do news outlets file lawsuits to wrestle records out of the grasps of agencies, a costly process for a cash-strapped industry, but many journalists file complaints against agencies that violate the law. One challenge facing journalists who file open records requests is the various ways agencies interpret open records laws, arbitrary actions that can be beneficial at times and a detrimental barrier at other times. In addition to more training, this study suggests that journalists could benefit from filing complaints on law-breaking agencies and writing letters on their own behalves to the state, better tracking records requests and paying closer attention to deadlines that, if ignored by agencies, can lead to the release of records.
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