Oh, those pesky student journalists at the University of New Mexico Daily Lobo. They want documents and don’t mind filing requests under the state Inspection of Public Records Act to obtain what they need to write the most complete stories possible.
Sounds like a commendable approach, correct? After all, the public records act is designed so that members of the public — and that’s hardly limited to journalists — can track what government is doing. Those records, in fact, belong to us.
It doesn’t appear so clear to members of the Communication and Journalism Department at UNM, where David Weiss the department chairman, has pronounced himself “disturbed” by what he sees as “use/misuse/abuse of IPRA” by Daily Lobo staffers.
The issue for Weiss, as he explained in an email to the Student Publications Board — obtained, naturally, through a records request — is this: “To be blunt, my journalism faculty colleagues and I — and I suspect — faculty and staff members in a variety of units around campus — are rather alarmed by students’ frequent use/misuse/abuse of IPRA; namely its use as a first step in researching or reporting on a story, rather than being used only after interviewing sources.”
This is a perplexing understanding of the use of records requests by someone teaching future journalists. Public records requests are not a “last resort” of desperation. Records requests can be a first step, helping journalists define the parameters of a story and helping them frame interview questions.
Requesting information through official channels should not be viewed as an aggressive strategy — although Weiss did admit in an interview with the student newspaper that such requests bother him. “I can only talk about myself here,” Weiss told the Daily Lobo. “When I get an IPRA request it just kind of pisses me off. I kinda feel like I’m being hauled into court by lawyers or by the cops or something because I am being compelled to comply.”
IPRAs are suspect, the department chairman said, because they can leave bad impressions on sources, tainting relationships between a journalist and a source. Sorry. That’s incorrect as well.
Making public records requests is another part of a journalist’s work. Public officials understand that, or they should, and so should those who head journalism and communication departments, even a chairman with a background in advertising. Sources and journalists are not friends, either, so it’s understandable if the relationship becomes testy at times. Yes, journalists can simply ask for documents, but a records request provides a paper trail.
Much of this could be avoided. Reporters — or other members of the public — should not have to file a formal request, wait a certain number of days and then be handed information as if the source were doing a favor. In a perfect world, information that New Mexicans need or want would be posted online, available immediately. That would save so-called keepers of public records time and taxpayers money. Transparency would be government’s default mode.
That’s not reality. Until it is, people will keep asking for records, whether informally or using state law. That the department charged with training future media professionals fails to support such efforts is disconcerting. UNM, as an institution, has been slow in responding to requests and often is heavy-handed in restricting information; last week, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government had to remind the school state law has no provision for records offices to shut down for winter break.
In response to the Communication and Journalism Department’s baffling position, both the New Mexico Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists weighed in to support the students. As do we.