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American Journalism Review
Beating The Tape Resistance  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   November 1991

Beating The Tape Resistance   

By Katherine Corcoran
Katherine Corcoran is a freelance writer inthe San Francisco Bay area who has worked in newspapers for 10 years.      

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When New York Newsday's Penny Loeb first requested a computer tape of records from the city's finance department, the agency complied readily. After she discovered and reported that the city owed property owners $275 million in tax overpayments and had failed to notify them, the agency was not so forthcoming.

Since then, Loeb says, "I've been in an eight-month battle for more tapes."

Reporters across the country have had similar problems. As more journalists analyze government records by computer and expose shortcomings or incompetence, more agencies are refusing to release their records. For the most part, federal and state freedom of information laws don't mention computer records. And case law in this area is conflicting. So there is little guidance when the press and government disagree on what constitutes a record or a reasonable search.

"Absent some ruling or law saying those records are public, it will become harder and harder to get access to them," says Christopher Schmitt, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.

To complicate matters, there is no standard for reasonable fees for copies of government records. When the Dayton Daily News requested tapes containing about 7 million Ohio driver's license records, the state cited a law requiring a charge of $3 per record. Total cost: $21 million. After much haggling, the paper and state settled on $400.

Other agencies have dumped truckloads of printouts on reporters who request computer records. "Whenever the government decides they don't want to give it to you, they put it on paper," says Dwight Morris of the Los Angeles Times. Printouts are impossible to use unless a news organization can pay to have the data entered on computer by hand, Morris says.

Some agencies cooperate, some don't. Morris says the Federal Election Commission bends over backwards to fill reporters' requests, while the Federal Aviation Administration and the Resolution Trust Corporation are very stingy.

The government has investigated the problem. In October 1988, the Office of Technology Assessment issued a report recommending changes in the Freedom of Information Act so that it would include computer records. But nothing has been implemented.

"One of the major recommendations they make is that there must be a rule promulgated that forces agencies to provide information in the form they themselves use it," Morris says. "They've got to give it in computer form."

A bill being drafted by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, would do just that, requiring that agencies provide information in the format requested as long as that format is available or easy to attain.

In the meantime, newspapers keep negotiating. Schmitt says it usually takes talks between top editors and high-ranking agency officials to get computer tapes. "Demand to talk to the computer people," Loeb recommends. "The F.O.I. people don't understand computer language."
– K.C.

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