Charles Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the facilitator of the Media of the Future Initiative for Mizzou Advantage. Davis’ scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and media law. He has published in law reviews and scholarly journals on issues ranging from federal and state freedom of information laws to libel law, privacy and broadcast regulation. He has earned a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in furthering freedom of information and the University of Missouri-Columbia Provost’s Award for Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching, as well as the Faculty-Alumni Award. In 2008, Davis was named the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Teacher of the Year.
Davis has been a primary investigator for a research grant from the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation for the National Freedom of Information Coalition and another from the Rockefeller Family Fund for the study of homeland security and freedom of information issues. He was a co-investigator for an award from the U.S. Department of State for a curriculum reform project for Moscow State University in Russia. Davis worked for newspapers and as a national correspondent for Lafferty Publications, a Dublin-based news wire service for financial publications, Davis reported on banking, e-commerce and regulatory issues for seven years before leaving full-time journalism in 1993. He completed a master’s degree from the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication and earned a doctorate in mass communication from the University of Florida in 1995. He received his bachelor’s degree from North Georgia College. Davis participates in numerous professional organizations, including the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.
—From the Missouri School of Journalism’s website.
Tell me about importance of FOIA…
They’re important for a couple of reasons on two different levels. As a reporter, I found that often when you were at small county government, school board meetings, county commission meetings, you are often the only person in the room that was keeping an eye on them and they knew that. And there was a certain therapeutic value to the fact that you were there. We can’t be everywhere all time — those of us in journalism. Open government CAN be there all the time. If you engage the public, and allow the government to participate in democracy, broadly defined, it doesn’t really matter how small the unit of governance is… somebody’s going to be there.
And if they’re accessing information about that public governmental body, I think it has a therapeutic effect because the body knows it’s being watched, and there’s something really powerful about that, as a preventative to corruption, frankly. And I think sometimes we talk about open government in all of these euphemistic terms about people’s business and the people’s right to know, and all that stuff. I try to get down to a little more practical: it’s about watching them, it’s about keeping an eye on our budgets and our pocketbooks, and it’s about people who are elected to government doing the public’s work, and without public participation that doesn’t happen.
Resource for citizens…?
I talk about that all the time when I’m talking to civic groups and taxpayers, and I talk about the fact that you might not need FOI today, but you’re going to need it eventually. And when the need arises, it’s going to be an acute need so you better take care of the right to access governmental meetings and records when you don’t need it because it’s when it suddenly pops up on your dashboard that it becomes really, really important.
I can’t tell you how many activists around this issue that I know who did not know what the term meant, if you’d have asked them what freedom of information meant, they’d say “I have no idea”… until the day in which something happened. My favorite example is a guy in northern Virginia who woke up one morning, coffee cup in hand, looked out his rural wooded backyard to find a county survey crew tromping through the backyard. It was at that nanosecond that he became very interested about information about county planning and zoning. He marched down to the county, asked why there was a survey crew in his back yard and a couple of hours later, an activist was born. That’s the way open government… I guess that’s its blessing and its curse. The blessing is people who care about it care a great deal about it, the curse is that it’s hard to get people in the abstract to understand why it’s so important until it suddenly becomes important to them.
In your past experience, any examples of using FOI to break a story…
Oh yea, countless times. One of the things that makes me hit my head against the wall is when people go, ‘oh it’s too time consuming, it takes too long..’ It can. It depends on the sort of documents you’re looking for. I always tell people there are at least ten or twelve documents you can make a daily request for that will inform your daily reporting no matter what beat you’re on. From sports to business to county government to cops and courts, there are documents you should be pulling down, I think, on a fairly regular basis that tell you a lot about what’s going on in your beat.
The best example, I think, is I used to routinely make a public record request just every time my beat got dull. I would make a record request for search warrant affidavits. And I would look at where, when and how search warrants had been executed in my city in a couple of month period. And that yielded… it never failed to produce an interesting story. It didn’t win me any Pulitzers or anything but it made nice daily stories that sort of enlivened… the cops beat can become totally reactive, you know. This person hit this person over the head yesterday and that gets a little dull, and so I used that search warrant thing to try to figure out on a trend basis, what people were doing in law enforcement. I found it enabled me to ask much, much better questions of the police that I was reporting on. And anyone who’s reported on police will tell you, if you can show a little respective for the job and you can show that you’ve taken an interest in their investigative techniques, then they are much more forthcoming because they see the effort that you put forth.
The most basic thing in the world… I go to these newsrooms from time to time, and one of the first things I ask is, ‘how many of you have a copy of your city’s budget on your desktop?’ Nobody. There’s silence every time. I think I’ve maybe had one hand raised the entire time and it makes me crazy because if you’re covering a municipality, there’s no way you should not have a budget of that municipality. Probably three years of budgets of that municipality sitting on your desktop 24 hours a day, seven days a week because it just produces so much granular understanding of what’s going on in your municipality. Whether money is moving away from police and into fire, whether parks and rec is having its budget slashed, there are endless stories coming out of that plus, you just need it so that you can level the playing field between you and the government.
What are some tips/tricks for journalists
Ask nicely first, don’t get all Woodward and Bernsteiny right off the bat and come crashing through the door. It’s the same stuff we tell our students all the time. Once you have been initially denied, then the game actually begins to be played. That’s what you must understand. Don’t make your entire daily report contingent on an FOI request, that would be stupid. If something comes back from an FOI request that informs your daily report or creates a new daily story, great. But don’t make it like… don’t go to your editor and say, ‘I’ve got this FOI request and if it comes in today it’ll make a great story.’ That is a recipe for disaster. Editors expect copy that is promised to them. That having been said, once you get the initial denial, it’s how you respond that separates you from the competition. If you look at this in a game-like fashion and you take that initial response as the first volley in what’s going to be a multi-volley game, then you can have fun with this process, actually. It has great potential for mischief-making, and if you like to make mischief — which is probably why you got into the business of journalism in the first place — then it’s a fabulous tool for that because you can be just as polite and civil and patient as humanly possible, and still get what you want in the end and be incredibly persistent. The sort of magic lies in figuring out within your own personality, how to make that work for you. How to just be unbelievable, maddeningly persistent. But at the same time be very, very nice and civil.
I find it incredibly effective. It drives public officials nuts.
Anything else you want to add?
Yea, one of the things I want people to understand — journalists but especially citizens — this is a statutory right. That means that it is the gift of legislatures, it’s not enshrined in the constitution, this right of access. I wish it were. It’s not. So we are dependent on our legislatures, thus we’re dependent on our people, for the laws that we have, the strength of the laws that we have and the weaknesses of them. So I want to underscore the fact that you’ve got to get involved in this issue if you care about it, because it’s not one of these things that is enshrined in the first amendment of the United States and you know is always going to be there. Legislatures take away access to governmental information every day. For it to withstand particularly this post-9/11 deference to law enforcement and intelligence gathering, it requires a lot of vigilance on people. It’s a bipartisan value. It’s not right or left, it’s about keeping an eye on them, and everybody agrees on that.
Advice for people who do want to get involved?
Yes, they should get themselves to the NFOIC website, first and foremost. Find a state group, there’s state groups in every state, go join up and get involved. This is one of those great areas where if you want something to do, there’s plenty to do, and there’s people who are more than willing to welcome you into the coalitions and put you to work.