Wick Communications

Real people hold real records

In Books on March 5, 2010 at 9:15 am

God bless David Cullier and Charles Davis.

Cullier is chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee and an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. Davis teaches media law at the University of Missouri and is national director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Together they have written a book called, “The Art of Access: Strageties for Obtaining Public Records.”

While I have yet to read it, I already want to hug both of their necks, as my grandma used to say.

I found out about the pair and their book by reading Steve Myers’ blog on the Poynter site. I thought: someone is finally explaining that access to records doesn’t have to be adversarial, it doesn’t have to involve sternly worded letters or highly paid lawyers. Sometimes it’s as simple as understanding and respecting the needs of the bureaucrat behind the counter.

OK, not always. Sometimes those bureaucrats are put in place by Beelzebub herself just to keep the public from knowing what’s going on with government. More often, however, they are stressed out, overworked, somewhat protective of their role and friends, and simply unaware of open records law. Your job is to help them help you…

In his discussion with Myers, Cuillier notes that simple human skills may be as important as lawyer letters. He suggests that walking around the counter and going over paperwork together is more likely to liberate the records you want than having a face-to-face conversation through a pane of glass at City Hall.

I have always advocated a honey-filled approach to bureaucrats. Treat them as human beings. Explain exactly what you are after. Be reasonable – don’t tell them you need it in an hour (unless you really do, of course.) Praise their service. Think of it this way: Are you more likely to help someone who cold-calls you at the office if he starts by telling you how much he enjoys the paper or if he begins with a tirade against your rag?

Look, psychology won’t always work. We know that. Sometimes you need to go to battle for the superintendent’s salary or the police report. But you know if you go that route, you’re looking at a protracted war of attrition. It can be expensive and it will take a lot of time if you decide to trade form letters from lawyers. I strongly suggest you try a soft approach first. And if that doesn’t work, hit the links above for some solid tips from Cuillier, Davis and their organizations.

Clay

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  1. I agree. At the courthouse when I was just starting out I would get bored at the counter waiting for clerks to dig up files I’d requested. So I’d take pieces of scratch paper and fold origami to fill the time, leaving the finished product behind as a thank-you when I left. Pretty soon the clerks knew me by name and had the little frogs and cranes all over their desks. And they were happy to see me, even though my requests are always much more time-consuming than the average court customer. That kind of relationship has saved me a few times — when I really am in a rush clerks (usually the ones with paper frogs on their desks) go out of their way to pull files (sometimes even prying them from the hands of judges) on my behalf.

  2. That is just outstanding, Andrew. Great idea. Now teach us how to make those paper cranes…

  3. Thanks for the sweet post — makes me wanna hug YOUR neck, as my grandma used to say too!

    Charles Davis

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