Thursday, September 25, 2014

Headlines: Where you put the atttibution can be important

It's worth some attention to where you put the attribution in a headline.

There's this gem from Reuters, courtesy of James Montalbano over at Testy Copy Editors.


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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

SC FOIA: The legislative exemption

The Nerve has an interesting piece this morning on a big exemption to the state's open-records law as the legislature moves forward to close some holes punched in the FOIA this year by court rulings.

This one puts much of the Legislature's correspondence off-limits.

It's a tough nut: While I tend to not want to delve into the average Joe's or Jane's plea for help with , say, a workers' comp claim, I sure would like to know if the Koch brothers are trying to influence folks.

And this from state Sen. Brad Hutto is a bit disingenous: “Ultimately, all we do is public. ... How we come to a decision may not be totally public, but when we actually vote, it’s on the record.”

That would be the point -- the coming to is often far more important than the final vote.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

FOIA: Another little chip away in South Carolina - criminal suspects' birthdates

S.C. officials will find any way they can to withhold more information, it seems. This from The State newspaper this week:

The S.C. Department of Public Safety said it no longer will release the date of birth in incidents the agency handles.

Failure to provide that information makes it nearly impossible for the public or the media to determine whether a suspect or victim has a criminal history. SLED requires the public to provide a date of birth to do such a search.

The agency’s legal staff cites two state laws to bolster its decision: The Family and Personal Identifying Information Privacy Protection Act and a financial identity fraud law.

“Insofar as the FPPA precludes the agency from releasing a date of birth, its provisions supersede any release that would be required by FOIA,” Public Safety spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said, referring to overriding the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The crime of identity theft lists 10 examples of personal information that can be used to steal financial identity. The lists includes bank account numbers, Social Security and driver’s license numbers and credit card numbers. The last example cited in the law for personal identification is a date of birth.
 We can debate victim's birthdates. But when someone has been charged, I don't think their privacy is in the mix

Update
Wes Wolfe had some interesting insight on Facebook in reaction to this post:

I've seen this sort of crap from law enforcement agencies and it's infuriating because it's so unnecessary. It's a way of asserting control of a piece of information that makes your job harder specifically to show they have control and can make your job harder.

Currently in North Carolina when an agency does this I can check court dates on the state courts network or check the state DPS site -- if the suspect had a previous conviction that resulted in probation or prison time -- and get the DOB like I should have 10, 15 or 30 minutes earlier. It's creating and/or aggravating an adversarial relationship between law enforcement and the press when there doesn't need to be one.

Considering the number of times people with the same name or fathers and sons both have current charges or convictions, DOB goes a long way toward making sure the right person's identified.

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/09/3671227_officials-silence-on-trooper-shooting.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Caveat emptor: Comptek/Universal Media Syndicate, Aereo and morally challeged newspapers

We've all seen them, the full-page ads for Amish heaters (where it doesn't exactly say but where, apparently, primarily only the frames are made by the Amish), "rare" coins and bills, etc. While the debate about "native advertising" in digital rages in various forums (punctuated by John Oliver's hilarious takedown of it), the old-fashioned "advertorial" has become more and more a staple (from my observations) for cash-strapped newspapers.

But even newspapers have some moral, if not legal, obligation, it seems to me to at least give these things a vetting for being misleading -- and, frankly, from a business sense, too, since this kind of stuff doesn't do much to help your already steadily eroding credibility.

This ad was in The State newspaper today (The State is happy hunting ground for all these ads) on page A13. It's not masquerading -- it is clearly labeled as "Special Advertising Feature":


But what the ad is trying to do is trade off what may be for many people some dim recollection of this thing called the Aereo case that got headlines a few months ago when the Supreme Court ruled against the company. The ad artfully misstates what Aereo really was, however:
  • Yes, it did use "mini" antennas.
  • But they were in a bank of antennas in a huge warehouse in Brooklyn, for instance.
  • And they were not so much designed to plug into your TV as to enable you to watch your over-the-air free TV stations on your computer anywhere you wanted to.
  • And, finally, consumers have been able to get "free TV" as long as TV has been on the air
There's no evidence I see that this "slick little $88 device" that "pulls in crystal-clear digital TV channels for free with no monthly bills" does any more than a $15 or $25 antenna from Wal-Mart (or other retailers) that you can plug right into the back of your digitally enabled flat screen. And if you happen to have an old analog TV, you can add a digital converter box for about $35, bringing the total cost to maybe $60 instead of almost $100 with shipping and handling. Heck, one of those boxes will even record shows if you plug in a large-enough digital drive.

The ad promoting the "Clear-Cast" and using as a source "Comptek, 8000 Freedom Ave., Canton, Ohio, 44720," is artfully worded to avoid legal issues, things like "consumers who have a slick little micro antenna device will receive all of the major network Hollywood movies broadcast over the air for free." Yep, and you can receive those same movies with one of those cheaper antennas or, if you have an enabled flat screen, artfully shaped aluminum foil shoved into the antenna input, it would seem. Always have been able to. (Any implication that wording might make in the minds of the slightly informed and hugely gullible that they might get things like HBO or even TNT is, of course, an unintended consequence, I'm sure.)

No surprise here. Universal Media Syndicate, the operation behind these questionable ads, has been the subject of numerous complaints.

The only "slick little device" in this ad is the wording.

But at what point does a paper like The State have to make some moral decisions and say enough is enough? You no longer can separate the newsroom from the business, as if you ever really could. And that makes it even more important that news organizations -- newsroom, ad, business and corporate -- examine their morals and ethics when it comes to things like this.

(And I haven't exactly seen press associations rushing to rethink this, either.)

Oh, indeed, the almighty dollar is tempting -- and sorely needed -- at times like this. But if news organizations don't do it with an enlightened sense of what they are about, they will ultimately be almighty dead. Because, you see, even the dullest consumers have flashes of brilliance, and when they do these days, all they have to do is hit a button ...

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FOIA: Kudos to The State for laying out the problems

The State newspaper, in conjunction with McClatchy's chain-wide news service, does a good job today of laying out the abuses of using "contract" workers in the construction industry.

But deserving of just as much of a kudos is the paper's sidebar, Getting records from Columbia Housing Authority is expensive, slow, that lays out how agencies do their best to make it hard to get information. In this case it was charging more than $1,400 for the records in which the Social Security numbers were redacted.

One thing that might have made this a bit stronger was taking the $1,075 for copying costs and dividing it by the number of pages (three boxes of records) to show how much the Columbia Housing Authority wanted per page. Since the authority also charged for workers' time, the only copying charge should have been for actual copying costs -- and anything over a nickel or, possibly, a dime (next thing, FOI the agency's copier contracts to see what it is paying) is suspect.

We need to do this more, every time we run up against this kind of thing. And we need to make sure it is framed in a way that says it is the public, not journalists, who are being cheated.

Also in the story is the state's refusal to release audits or much other information because of the legal opinion that federal law makes workers' comp info private. However, there are a string of state and federal court cases also saying in general that off-limits info can be redacted and the rest released. This is why I do hope to win the lottery so I can establish an FOI foundation that will have the primary mission of providing low-cost or free legal assistance so these cases can be litigated quickly and often. Without that, it's sort of like the chocolate candies in Candy Crush -- the dodges just keep proliferating until they take over.

Getting records from Columbia Housing Authority is expensive, slow
It wasn’t easy or cheap to find out how many companies classified workers as independent contractors on the controversial Village at River’s Edge project and another project financed with federal stimulus dollars.

After receiving a Freedom of Information Act request, the Columbia Housing Authority took more than four months to supply three boxes of records to The State newspaper. The authority also charged the newspaper $1,425 for the right to review the documents. The newspaper paid the amount under protest.

State law allows public bodies to waive fees for documents when the information sought is in the public interest, but the authority chose not to do so.

The authority said it had to copy payroll sheets so it could redact the Social Security numbers of workers. The authority’s bill included $1,075 for copying costs. The remainder of the cost was to pay for staff time to prepare the records, the authority said.

Neither the Housing Authority of the city of Charleston nor the State Housing Finance and Development Authority charged anything for records they supplied. Each responded to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request about a month after it was made.

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/07/3664301/independent-workers-raise-questions.html?sp=/99/205/&ihp=1#storylink=cpy

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Friday, September 05, 2014

FOIA: Bill Rogers guest post

A guest post this week by the S.C. Press Association's Bill Rogers praising some school board members for having the backbone to walk out of a board meeting that might have been illegal.

As you read through consider the lawyer's comment, which brings to mind the retort, Well, if you'd stop practicing the law and actually become proficient at it ...

Lowcountry board members show guts to leave secret meeting they thought illegal


Bill Rogers

By Bill Rogers
Three school board members in the Lowcountry took a courageous step last week when they refused to attend an executive session they felt was illegal.

If more public officials refused to participate in improper or illegal secret meetings, we would have far more transparency in government.

The secret meeting was to view proposals to renovate an old school into district administration offices to the tune of $1.6 million.

So what is the need for secrecy? Shouldn’t the public be privy to this presentation and discussion?

The action by the three came when the Jasper County School Board held a called meeting to hear contractor presentations for proposed new district offices.

Board members Tedd Moyd and Debra Butler walked out of the meeting early.

Board member Randy Horton said he did not show up to the meeting after reading the agenda because he did not want to be a part of any illegal actions.

Moyd disagreed with the board holding the meeting in executive session as opposed to a public meeting for residents to be informed.

“It should have been a public meeting,” Moyd said. “…This is public education, why are we holding meetings like this in executive session? It makes us look like we’re hiding something,” he told a local newspaper reporter.

Mr. Moyd hits the nail on the head. Too often board members don’t stand up to school superintendents and their lawyers, many of whom have no appreciation of the concept of open government in our state.

School board attorney Kenneth L. Childs has expressed concern that encouraging citizen board members to not attend what they thought was an illegal meeting was “encouraging public officials not to perform their official duties.”

The opposite is true.

Let’s hope other school board and council members recognize they, as individuals, have a duty to obey the Freedom of Information Act and stand up for open government.

When that happens, the public wins.

Childs wrote to complain that I was giving school board members incorrect lay legal advice.

SCPA Attorney Jay Bender said, “To the contrary, Bill was giving much-needed civics advice  –  advice that many school board members never receive.”

We don’t need backroom politics and secrecy…we’ve had enough of that. Let the sun shine in.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

New archive for The Convergence Newsletter

The Convergence Newsletter archives have a new address:

http://sc.edu/cmcis/archive/convergence/

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Monday, September 01, 2014

Academic job: University of South Carolina multiplatform position

We're now accepting applications for a tenure-track position to help us teach multiplatform journalism. Professional track is available.

See the add http://www.sc.edu/study/colleges_schools/mcis/journalism_and_mass_communications/employment_opportunities/multiplatform_journalism.php

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

FOIA: PACER, federal courts' records site, deleting old records

Such are the perils of the digital age and our collective memory. The one thing that should be available for a very long time, the nation's court records, are now being deleted in some jurisdictions from the federal courts' PACER database.

(We can have a long discussion later about whether court records delivered digitally should be charged the usurious price of 8 cents a page.)

Together with efforts to broaden expungement of criminal records in some states, I fear we every so steadily are being overtaken by the philosophy of presentism, a dangerous thing.

Update 9/19:
Ars Technica reports the courts will restore the documents. 

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

SC FOIA: Score one for us

After the recent freedom of information setbacks in South Carolina, media lawyer Jay Bender points out a new state Supreme Court ruling that puts some teeth into the law's 15-day rule and gives us a tool to at least force agencies to make a quick determination on whether records are open.

The records still do not have to be produced within 15 days, but by requiring a final determination, it opens the route to be able to quickly move to the courts to adjudicate any adverse agency opinions that records are not open. (And it opens the possibility of attorney's fees.)

But then, sigh, there's this little dodge to openness proposed by S.C. State's board chairman.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Impressive work by Charleston Post and Courier

The Post and Courier in Charleston has started running an investigation into domestic violence against women in South Carolina.

It's nice work , and you should read it.

My only reservation is technical -- the paper has tended to "snowfall" this a bit, and I'm not sure it is the best technique for a public policy story like this. The legislative part of it tends to get lost toward the bottom, and it also kind of gets in the way of a more general thread of telling women's stories, which works better integrally as a long-form narrative.

That the Legislature so far has resisted most changes  is important enough that I think it would be better split out and floated on the side so it stays in people's view. But that's only a minor quibble.

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FOIA: Call for grassroots effort in SC

Don Kausler, regional editor of the Morning News in Florence, has taken up the call that changing SC's wounded Freedom of Information Act has got to be a full-time, concerted effort in which we get the public involved, not just a one-of Sunshine Week effort.

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