Tuesday, September 24, 2002

South Dakota Reporters Look into Open Records

Just how open are public records to the public? Should someone have to identify themselves before gaining access to records? There's no denying that closed government proceedings are potentially very harmful. But, how accessible should records be? The press in South Dakota conducted a survey of county tax records, city and school records, and information gathered by law enforcement:
Reporters, editors and other staff of South Dakota's 11 daily newspapers and The Associated Press visited city, county and school offices in all county seats on June 26 to check whether records are available to the public.

''We ran a test. Does it work? If Joe Blow comes off the street to get information - a salary or property tax information, whatever it might be - is the public able to access that information?'' said Kim Dohrer, editor of The Daily Republic in Mitchell and president of the South Dakota Associated Press Managing Editors.
The information chosen wasn't selected because it was newsworthy. The news was whether the information would be given at all. And, if it was, what procedures someone from the public would have to go through to receive it. Because of that, the surveyors didn't identify themselves as reporters.

The results of the survey appear to be more positive than negative. But, in an interesting twist, a reporter who was to take part in the survey developed a reason to seek out records a few days before the survey started. Her broken-down car was stuck on the side of a road when it was hit by someone who was later found to be driving while intoxicated. Her endeavors to gain access to information were much more difficult. In an article entitled What records can mean to a crime victim, the reporter points to the type of difficulties that the surveyors might not have discovered. How much of a right to information does a victim have?