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OHIO journalism faculty play lead role in statewide public records audit

Jun 12, 2014

OHIO journalism faculty play lead role in statewide public records audit

By Erin Roberts 

ATHENS, Ohio (June 12, 2014)—Several E.W. Scripps School of Journalism faculty played key roles in a statewide public records audit conducted by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, the results of which were widely published throughout Ohio.

The audit followed a similar study conducted by the group a decade ago to determine whether governmental offices throughout the state were complying with Ohio’s public record laws.

“I was approached by Ohio Newspapers Association Executive Director Dennis Hetzel in October to help coordinate an audit to measure progress against the previous study,” said Andy Alexander, a Scripps Visiting Professional in the Scripps College of Communication. “I pitched the idea to journalism Director Bob Stewart, who agreed our faculty could play a leading role in coordinating the effort.”

At that point, a small coordinating committee consisting of Alexander, Stewart, and Ohio news executives Hetzel; Christine Merritt, president of the Ohio Association of Broadcasters; Ben Marrison, editor of The Columbus Dispatch; and Teri Hayt, Executive Editor of GateHouse Ohio Newspapers was formed.  

The real work began in January, when the coordinating committee met to establish a timeline for the project and assign tasks. The committee, with faculty volunteer Bill Reader taking the lead, first wrote a “script” for journalists acting as auditors in all 88 Ohio counties, consulted leading media attorneys to ensure that materials and information requested were all covered under Ohio’s public records laws. They then assembled an auditing team, trained them via video and webinars, and then, finally, after information was submitted from all counties, crunched the numbers. 

While Alexander called various stages of the project “cat-herding on a large scale,” he credits two E.W. Scripps faculty—Bill Reader and Aimee Edmondson—for their contributions.

“We were lucky to get two stellar volunteers from the Scripps faculty,” he said. “Bill Reader, who had helped with the previous statewide audit and who also is a real authority on Ohio’s public records laws, agreed to help craft the audit questions and handle much of the training of journalists from throughout the state who would actually request the records, and Aimee Edmondson, who has expertise in open records laws and data-driven journalism.”

Alexander called Reader “absolutely indispensable” to the project, citing his work in writing the questions and his determination in gathering information from every single county, to ensure the audit’s credibility. 

“It was critically important that all of our journalist ‘auditors’ ask for documents in exactly the same way, so that public officials could not later claim that the wording of our requests was imprecise,” he said. “Bill went so far as to travel several counties away to pick up the work of a journalist who did not gather assigned information. His dedication to this audit was instrumental in the its success.” 

The “surprise” audit was conducted over several days beginning April 21. In the following days and weeks, auditors submitted their findings electronically. Edmondson, Reader and another Scripps faculty member Hans Meyer analyzed the data and worked with Mark Wert, a computer assisted reporting staffer with the Cincinnati Enquirer, who turned the data into an interactive graphic in which readers could have their computer cursor roll over any county in the state and instantly get a snapshot of their level of compliance with the records request. 

In late May, Ohio news organizations were informed that the audit findings would be released after midnight on June 11. On June 12, the package moved under the logo: “Ohio: Open for Inspection?”  The Associated Press moved a package of stories/graphics for print and broadcast outlets. AP wrote the mainbar, and individual news organizations throughout the state have contributed sidebars.

Stewart recognized the faculty members’ for their work his blog “From the Director,” which is published on the school’s website, saying the audit was “very important, even essential.”

Open record laws play a vital role in allowing journalists to serve the public by shedding light on government activities,” he wrote. “Ohio’s citizens are better off when news organizations can count on government officials to comply with the open records laws.”

For more detail on the audit, visit http://scrippsjschool.org/blog/post.php?postID=461