As the chair of the University of New Mexico's Communication and Journalism Department, I wanted to commend Dillon Mullan for his well-researched, balanced and fair-minded article (“UNM clashing with student journalists over public records, Dec. 28”), which examined both personal and pedagogical viewpoints on the use of New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act in journalism. I would like to expand on my comments referenced therein.
UNM's journalism program offers concentrations in strategic communication (advertising, public relations, strategic digital/social media), digital field multimedia and multimedia journalism.
Our multimedia journalism instructors are diverse journalism professionals and educators, dedicated to teaching, mentoring and training students to be effective, critical, thoughtful and fair-minded news reporters, editors, broadcasters and producers.
Our instructors are united in their passion for instilling in our students the drive to discover or uncover facts and the need to maintain and strengthen journalism’s central role in our democracy. Each instructor has worked in journalism for decades. In fact, most still work as part-time or freelance journalists and as free-speech advocates, and their professional experience and perspectives model for our students what being a good reporter truly means.
Sadly, journalists increasingly struggle to overcome obstacles to transparency and accountability in government and other public institutions. Fortunately, since the mid-1960s, there’s been a powerful tool available to the American public, including news organizations: the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to access records from federal agencies. Since 1978, New Mexico citizens have also had IPRA at their disposal. Many of the most important investigative reports of the last several decades, here and nationally, have resulted from the release of public records requested by reporters and news organizations via FOIA and IPRA.
The importance of public-records requests in breaking through institutional logjams and ensuring that journalists can continue to report the news — and protect our democracy — cannot be overstated.
In our courses on reporting, journalism production, and media ethics and law, we teach our journalism majors the fundamentals, value and importance of FOIA and IPRA, and how to use these essential instruments in one’s reportorial toolbox.
We also teach them time-tested techniques of professional, effective and ethical journalism: conducting in-depth background research, interviewing sources on all sides of a story, explaining context for and relevance of claims and findings, and fact-checking.
Thanks to the internet, filing an IPRA request can be easier than ever. Reporters can quickly request public records, including emails, meeting notes, budget documents, etc. But reporting a story based only on public records can mean that little or no context is provided.
So we teach our students that as valuable and easy-to-use as IPRA can be, good journalism also entails all the classic “shoe-leather” reporting elements like speaking with a variety of sources. This allows them to write stories that take into account a variety of perspectives — human experiences as well as unexplained content in disembodied files — so that their reporting will be based upon context, relevance and balance as well as data.
Several readers have suggested that my department, or that I personally, am opposed to IPRA; that my colleagues and I are teaching our students not to use it; or, at a minimum, that such use is discouraged.
While I’ve shared my personal reaction to receiving IPRA requests before being contacted by reporters, the last thing I’d ever want our students to take away from my remarks is the message to not avail themselves of public-records requests. FOIA and IPRA are essential to safeguarding of democracy and freedom of the press as enshrined in the First Amendment. I wouldn’t have it any other way.