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DEAR READER: Books project demonstrates importance of public records in journalism

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:18 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 8, 2012

This story is part of a larger project on book challenges in Missouri and the U.S. Find the full project here.

Dear Reader,

One of the great joys of teaching at the Missouri School of Journalism is my graduate freedom of information seminar, Controls of Information, a hands-on look at the world of public information and its many, many uses.

I live and breathe this stuff, and my students continually amaze me with their initiative, their passion and their know-how, which is on full display in the book challenges series we’re kicking off in the Missourian today.

In many ways, the series is a microcosm of what makes this place tick: students working on real-world journalism and learning the ropes along the way, with the help of faculty editors from the Missourian and Vox. It’s a team effort, and it began way back in 2011, when I began to think about ways to animate the teaching of public records laws.

A few years ago, my class took a look at how book challenges are handled in Missouri, and the results tempted me to take a deeper look this year. So we sent public records requests to every school district in the state, asking for copies of the forms parents fill out when challenging the content of library books in their kids’ schools.

Each student had 40 or so public records requests to babysit, and the results — about 87.5 percent compliance — attest to their dogged pursuit of information that belongs to us all and to the wonderful school officials who dutifully sent in their information. Many followed up with notes encouraging us. A few criticized us for wasting their time. I guess you can’t please everyone, but overall we were delighted with the results.

Whether it’s book challenges, spending or policy making, we simply can’t do this kind of large-scale work without access to public information. Projects like this should remind us all that governments maintain all sorts of records, and it is incumbent upon the news media to retrieve them and make sense of them. Asking regularly for public information is a way to keep the levers of democracy greased and working, and routine scrutiny of our government is the best way to ensure that it is working on our behalf.

The results of our project offer a glimpse into an often overlooked corner of public schools: the library. In these contentious times, it’s no surprise that many media specialists and superintendents find themselves in the difficult position of handling heated disputes over reading materials. Take a look for yourself, and let it serve to underscore just how tough a job our public educators have.

Don’t forget that without access to public records, this series, and so many other stories that grace the pages of the Missourian, would not be possible.

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. His scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and media law.


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