Here’s what I learned.
By Clifford Michel
(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Editor’s Note: As a grant recipient of the Knight-CUNYJ Summer Internship Program, Clifford Michel had the opportunity to spend the summer working at ProPublica while attending seminars at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The goal of the program, which was created last year, is to help “build a stronger pipeline of academically excellent, digitally trained minority journalists” into American newsrooms. The following is Michel’s account of his contributions to the launch of ProPublica’s Red Cross Reporting Network.
As the son of Haitian immigrants and a student at the College of Staten Island, I have been a close reader of ProPublica’s dogged reporting on the Red Cross and its inadequate response to the earthquake in Haiti and to Hurricane Sandy.
So when I found out that I would be spending my summer at ProPublica, helping to coordinate freedom of information requests concerning the charity, I was ecstatic.
The task seemed daunting at first. My editor explained she was relying on me to file public records requests in more than a dozen states where major disasters occurred last year.
Now that my internship is over, I am happy to say that I’ve come away with a deep understanding of FOI laws, sympathy for underfunded government agencies, and a few thousand pages of emails “regarding any reference to the Red Cross.”
Here are the most important things I learned:
Always Insist That You “Need All of It”
Early on in my hunt for documents, I would almost feel guilty for asking the director of a local emergency management agency to mine their own email accounts for Red Cross-related emails.
“Most of our communication is over the phone,” one EMA director in Washington told me. “Do you really need all of it?” He explained that it was the first time anyone had made a request to his office asking for emails. He was so confused that he even offered to do an interview with me in lieu of fulfilling the records request. By the time I got off the phone, I was convinced that I was burdening this county-level director for no good reason.
My hunch seemed to be all but confirmed when I got a trove of seemingly useless emails from him a week later. But then, as I reviewed the documents, I noticed that an official from Washington’s state-run emergency management agency was CC’ed frequently. I used that name to amend another records request I had submitted at the state level and didn’t think much of it until I received a CD from the state two weeks later.
It turned out that that very official coordinated directly with the Red Cross and other non-profits. And those other non-profits weren’t thrilled about the Red Cross’ efforts. Here are some highlights:
- “I have just contacted, via voice mail, the Department of Commerce and asked them to take Red Cross off the donation recommendation list until we can get some accountability and action.”
- “With all of the funding being received by an organization that claims to be responsive, it appears that our community is at the bottom of the list for assistance.”
- “Just one example is the Omak Shelter set up by Red Cross and an elderly man there for 3 days was unable to get a voucher for clean underwear.”
Real America Cares About Your Records Request
Every reporter in the newsroom seemed to have a diary full of FOI nightmares to share whenever I told them what I was working on. But, despite a handful of tough cases, I found a tremendous amount of success. It was often the smaller counties, many without a designated records officer, that would get documents back to me the quickest.
In a world where major government agencies can outright thwart a FOI request, it was refreshing to have so many local counties cooperate with my requests within a few short weeks.
Real America May Not Know That You Have the Right to Make a Records Request
While local counties processed my FOI requests fairly quickly, finding an individual who actually knew what I was trying to request was a challenge in and of itself.
I followed a similar routine with almost every county. I’d call the county commissioner’s office, who’d transfer to me the county clerk, who’d in turn transfer me to their emergency management agency. Then I’d have the pleasure of trying to explain to the agency’s director why they’d have to get I.T. to dig through their work emails.
One county clerk wrote, “Can you please give me the statute you are referencing for this request?” I responded with a brief explanation of her state’s Open Records Act, to which she replied “Thank you!” Almost as if I had passed a test.
When in Doubt, Find the Attorney
A records officer in Missouri stopped replying to me after I pointed out that it seemed strange that their search for records came up completely empty. Especially since a virtually identical records request in another county showed the director, whose emails I was seeking, copied several times in emails clearly stating “regards the Red Cross.”
With radio silence from the records officer, I took my request to the county’s attorney. One email outlining the state’s statute and my request was enough to get the process moving along. A few days later, I finally heard back from the records officer. There was a misunderstanding and another search would be conducted, she told me.
From that point on, county attorneys have been my go-to source for obtaining records in locales where I used to spend two days being transferred from office to office.
It’s awfully surprising how excited you can get from someone acknowledging that a “sunshine law,” in fact, does exist. And it’s even more exciting when that same person offers to explain it to the EMA director who had stopped returning your calls and emails.
There’s Value in Taking the Time
Before ProPublica, I interned at Politico New York, a news outlet with as much fight as any New York City tabloid. If it moved and had anything to do with the nexus of New York politics, media, and business, it was news. It was there that I learned how to turn an uninformative press conference into a story by asking just the right question. And that it’s possible to do a write-up in the Bronx and Manhattan in the same day and still make it on time for your evening class in Staten Island.
In almost every way, my experience at ProPublica has probably been the exact opposite, but it’s been just as fun. I’d start off each day calling states and counties that had neglected to respond to me in the time specified by their public records laws, starting from the East Coast and shifting to the West Coast around noon.
When the first files and packages began to come in, it was like piecing together a puzzle. I’d often have to expand the time frame I originally submitted, sharpen the language, or add additional officials — all to the annoyance of some very testy records officers.
Sometimes, it felt fruitless. I’d get back a request that had a Red Cross officer copied in one email and the rest would be an unnecessarily long PowerPoint presentation. But other requests peeled back layers that have yet to be explored. Look no further than the email I quoted earlier. The potential of other non-profits feeling squeezed out due to the Red Cross’ fundraising efforts and, at the same time, being overburdened by tasks they were never expecting to fill is absolutely newsworthy. I hope that ProPublica will find a home for those documents via our Red Cross Reporting Network, and I hope that many more journalists will sign up and report on the Red Cross’s work in their own communities.
Sometimes all you need to do is ask.