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25th Anniversary 1978-2003

Vol. 25, No.4/Summer 2003

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Finding public records - for fee or for free

By Megan Gallup, News Research Editor, Daytona Beach News-Journal

There were two programs at SLA that dealt with public records. The first was a Continuing Education course titled Tracking Down Public Records. We heard from a variety of speakers:
  • John Martin, St. Petersburg Times
  • Bob Port, New York Daily News
  • Linda Gray, Carolina Information, Inc.
  • Rebecca Daugherty, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
  • Barbara Fought, Syracuse University

    Highlights of the session include:

    Reporters are under deadline pressures - so they don't want a package of one hundred Nexis clips and they don't want a long explanation. Often they just want a phone number. It's our job to find out exactly what a reporter wants and needs and deliver that information to them in a form they can use.

    Bob Port encouraged news librarians to be more proactive in their organizations. We can teach reporters about the things they can learn through public records.

    Port and other speakers emphasized that reporters and researchers need to understand government levels and jurisdictions. We need to know how public records and laws governing public records work.

    Linda Gray talked about how different county, state and federal records can be. She also stressed that researchers should know what areas a database covers. For example, many databases claim to be statewide sources, but don't include information from all counties. Also, be aware of the years covered by a database. And remember that just because you don't find a piece of information does not mean the information doesn't exist.

    Most importantly - there is no magical database and there is no such thing as a national criminal background check. Even the National Crime Information Center gets reports from just 22 states.

    Rebecca Daugherty and Barbara Fought talked about common problems when trying to access public records. Often, government officials don't know the law. Government office staffs are often overworked or they may even be stalling on handing out newsworthy or embarrassing records.

    Fought said that the government doesn't compile information for you - it compiles records from which you can get information. It is important that you find out what agency has the records you want, then go to that agency to make a request.

    Some sources mentioned by the speakers are:

  • Citizen Access Project (Brechner Center, University of Florida)
  • Department of Justice, Freedom of Information Act
  • PACER, for access to federal court records (subscription service)
  • TRAC - Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (some free, some subscription only)
  • Tapping Officials' Secrets

    The session Public Records from Commercial Sources was a discussion about accessing records using fee-based services or commercial sources. Once again, several speakers provided their thoughts on the issues:

  • Sammy Alzofon, Palm Beach Post - moderator
  • Sandy Levy, Baltimore Sun
  • Liz Donovan, Miami Herald

    News librarians probably already realize that it's becoming more difficult to access public records. Government officials at all levels are steadily passing laws which limit our access. While we still may be able to obtain information from commercial sources, once again news researchers need to be aware of what their state and local laws will allow them to access. And it's always a good idea to have your company attorneys review any contract you sign with a commercial source.

    Sandy Levy made the point that we must tell reporters that they need to independently verify any information obtained from a public records service.

    And while you can use services such as Autotrack and Accurint to get legal information, you may also be able to use a local or state service at a lower cost, or even for free. For example, many states provide access to their inmate listings on their law enforcement or department of corrections web sites.

    Liz Donovan reminded us that we should also check the currency of information received from a commercial vendor. These services may only update parts of their databases once a year, and it's often difficult to get an answer from the service as to how frequently the data is updated. And if you give reporters access to these services, be sure they're aware that searches should only be conducted for business purposes.

    Also, databases may not be complete anymore either because many states offer citizens the chance to opt-out. So, once again, just because you don't find an entry in one of these services, doesn't mean the information doesn't exist.

    Some sources mentioned by the speakers are:

  • Autotrack (ChoicePoint)
  • Accurint
  • FlatRateInfo
  • Court Express
  • Free BRB Publications (links to public records sources)
  • Free Search Systems (links to public records sources)

    Last Updated: 08/18/03
    Ron Larson