Mining Public Records for Stories:  Resources and Ideas for Journalists

Ira Chinoy

  Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland


Address of this Web page:


Last updated 10/10/2010


Useful collections of links:

Ø      Journalism organizations’ links to stories:

o       Investigative Reporters and Editors

§         Archive of hot projects

§         The latest investigative projects

o       National Education Writers Association

§         Resources page – with links to recent stories of interest

§         Award-winning stories

o       Society of American Business Editors and Writers

§         Winners of the “Best in Business” contest

o       Society of Environmental Journalists

§         Award-winning stories for reporting on the environment

o       Journalism Center on Children and Families

§         Award-winning stories

o       Pulitzer Prizes:

§         Archive of award-winning stories


Ø      JOUR 472/772Computer-Assisted Reporting course resources page

o       Reporting projects on the Web (in-depth and computer-assisted reporting)

o       Capital News Service computer-assisted reporting projects:

o       Data sites

o       Explaining the importance of public records and access to them: “Why Public Records are Important to the Public”

Ø      Resources on the Internet for covering business

Ø      Other journalism-related resources on the Web:

o       Internet Resources / Journalism: Resources from advocacy to media watchdogs,” by Bob Garber of McKeldin Library, in CR&L News (the Association of College & Research Libraries), March 2006


Access to public information:

Ø      Organizations:

o       The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has information about access to public records.

o       How to Use the Federal FOI Act,” with information about the federal FOIA law.

o       RCFP’sOpen Government Guide,” a guide to public information laws in each state. Note that this guide was prepared several years ago. Some of the language has been modified since then and several new provisions have been added. Confirm anything in this guide with a current version of the appropriate state law.

§         Guide to the Maryland Public Information Act

§         Guide to the Delaware Public Records Law

§         Guide to the District of Columbia Public Records Law

o       Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE)

§         FOIA and First Amendment Center

§         FOIA Case Log Database

§         Investigative Reporters Handbook, 5th Edition

o       Freedom of Information Center:

o       Society of Environmental Journalists:

o       Key FOIA resources on the Internet

o       SEJ involvement in FOIA issues

o       SEJ report: "A Flawed Tool — Environmental Reporters' Experiences With the Freedom of Information Act"

o       The Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association:

o       Freedom of Information page has reports on public records audits of government agencies

o       Poynter Institute:

o       Poynter Seminar Group Project: “The Top 38 Excuses Government Agencies Give for Not Being Able to Fulfill Your Data Request (And Suggestions on What You Should Say or Do)”

Ø      State public records laws:

o       Maryland (Maryland PIA)

§         Text of the Maryland Public Information Act:

§         The Maryland Public Information Act Manual, 11th ed. (October 2008), Office of the Maryland Attorney General.

§         The Maryland-Delware-DC Press Association has Public Records Audits of government agencies in Maryland.  The association has links to these audits on its Freedom of Information page.

o       Delaware (Delaware FOIA)

§         Text of the Delaware Freedom of Information Act

§         Delaware Attorney General’s FOIA policy manual

§         State of Delaware records policies

§         Delaware’s general records retention schedules

o       District of Columbia (DC FOIA)

§         DC Freedom of Information Act

§         FOIA guide from DC’s Office of the Secretary

o       Oregon:

§         “Openness at Risk,” a series in the Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon:

§         “Records law provides newspaper a window into government; Documents uncovered some of year's top stories,” March 14, 2005

§         Associated Press report: “Lawmakers find ways to sidestep Oregon's 1973 public-records law; A 2003 push by others to hide more data failed,” in the Statesman Journal, March 14, 2005

Ø      Federal public records law

o       U.S. Freedom of Information Act (US FOIA)

§         Text of the Freedom of Information Act

§         Federal FOIA training manual

§         Principle FOIA contacts at federal agencies

§         FOIA resources pages of federal agencies:

ü      U.S. Department of Justice page of FOIA resources

ü      Other federal agencies’ FOIA web sites

§         Annual FOIA reports of federal agencies

Ø      Examples of leads for finding public records:

o       State regulations:

§         Maryland Code of Regulations – COMAR

o       Web sites of government agencies reporting on their activities

§         Maryland Manual Online

§         State of Maryland Home Page

§         U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB)

ü      Report on recordkeeping requirements and paperwork reduction has information about records collected

v     Example

o       Records retention schedules:

§         Oregon University System’s records retention schedule

§         Oregon State Archives: County and Special District Retention Schedule

§         Records retention schedule for Maryland circuit courts

o       Reports of government watchdogs: look for section on methods and sources:

§         U.S. Government Accountability Office

ü      GAO Reports:

v     Browse

v     Search by Keyword

v     Example: EPA report on leaking underground storage tanks

ü      GAO – Investigators Guide to Sources of Information (1997):

§         IGnet – Federal inspectors general

§         Yahoo -- Government Fraud and Waste

o       Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE)

§         Search IRE tipsheets

§         The Investigative Reporter's Handbook, 4th Edition, by Brant Houston, Len Bruzzese and Steve Weinberg

Ø      Don’t forget the really old stuff:  Archives as sources of records for journalists

o       JOUR 474/774 – Mining the National Archives – Syllabus and Resources


Links to stories using public records:

Ø      Capital News Service – stories in by student journalists for Maryland area publications

o       Food inspections:  Egg inspections and inspectors

o       Elevators:  Elevator inspections and chart

o       Environment: Large increase  in sewage overflows in Maryland

o       Nursing homes:  State slow to correct most severe problems

o       Children: Shortage of licensed day care

o       Foster care: Children returned to abusive homes

o       Vehicle emissions: Cars most prone to fail emissions tests

o       Workplace: Highest rates of injuries and deaths

o       Patents: Trends in patents awarded to Maryland inventors

o       Boating: Boating safety enforcement

o       Business:  Large-scale layoffs by Maryland businesses

o       Charities: Charities’ fundraising

o       Crime: Carjackings

o       Discrimination:  Most employment cases dismissed

o       Employment:  Bioscience boom fuels Frederick County growth

o       Liquor sales: Liquor stores in low-income neighborhoods

Ø      Government programs and spending

o       Washington Post series on DC government spending, by Dan Keating and David Fallis, Nov. 27-28, 2005

o       “District Dodges Spending Laws; Companies Snare Contracts With Connections, Not Competition”

Sidebar: “Funds in Health Contract Shifted to Pay Consultants”

Graphic: “Blank Check: Spending the City's Money”

o        Lavish Spending, Little Reward; D.C. Agencies Gave Contractor Millions for Projects but Scant Oversight”

o       “Emergency Funds Spent to Replace Beach Sand,” Gilbert M. Gaul, The Washington Post, May 30, 2004.

o       “County can't account for $1 million in grants,” by Daniel J. Chacón, Union-Tribune (San Diego), August 7, 2005: “A multimillion-dollar program that gives county supervisors the freedom to hand out hundreds of taxpayer-funded grants is riddled with shoddy bookkeeping and lax oversight. A San Diego Union-Tribune investigation has found that records for 54 grants totaling nearly $1 million are missing.”

Ø      Schools and children

o       School crime and discipline:

·        “Schools Underreport Crime,” Roanoke Times, May 17, 2003

o       Student performance:

·        “Poor schools' TAKS surges raise cheating questions,” Joshua Benton and Holly Hacker, Dallas Morning News, December, 2004 [registration required].  An analysis of school performance tests uncovers evidence of cheating orchestrated by educators.

o       Teacher qualifications:

·        Teachers who fail: A survey of certification-test scores yields alarming results,” Chris Davis and Matthew Doig, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Dec. 12, 2004.

o       “How We Did This Story”

o        “State Fights to Prevent Access to Teacher Information”

o       Child-care workers:

·        "Who's watching the children?" (Part One of a Four-Part Series), Orange County Register, March 17, 2002.

o       Cutting costs … and service:

·        “Closing Costs,” The Charleston Gazette, Charleston, W.V., Aug. 25, 2002:  “When they closed hundreds of West Virginia schools, state education officials promised to save millions of dollars and provide new advanced classes, without making bus rides much longer for students. A decade later, bus times are longer than ever, few advanced courses are offered to rural students, and those savings never materialized…”

ü      “School closings, lax oversight lead to record long bus rides,” Aug. 25, 2002: “School administrators across West Virginia have repeatedly ignored transportation laws and guidelines, forcing thousands of children to spend two hours or more on school buses each day and leaving them more likely to get sick, less likely to learn, a Gazette-Mail investigation has found.”

ü      “How we did it,” Aug. 25, 2001:  “…Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Gazette-Mail obtained records for 1,569 bus runs for the state’s 35 most rural counties…. Over the course of nine months, the newspaper constructed a database including when each run started, when it stopped, and how much time children rode in-between.”

Ø      Vulnerable populations:

o       “A Dangerous Place: Assisted Living in Virginia,” David Fallis, The Washington Post, May 23-26, 2004

o       Invisible Lives and Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.'s Retarded,” Kate Boo, The Washington Post, Mach 14-15 and Dec. 9, 1999.

Ø      Crime and punishment

o       “Special Report: Under 12 / Under Arrest,” St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 17, 2000.

o       “Cases crumble, killers go free,” Jim Haner, Kimberly A.C. Wilson and John B. O'Donnell, The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 29, 2002

o       “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied,” The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky., Nov. 24-26, 2002:  “At least 200 people charged in Bullitt County with felonies such as rape, drug-dealing and murder have escaped prosecution in the past two decades because of a flawed judicial system that has misplaced, mismanaged and delayed cases.”

o       "Cops who abuse their wives rarely pay the price," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Ruth Teichroeb and Julie Davidow, July 23, 2003

o       “Judges Under the Influence?” Charlotte Observer, May 15, 2005

o       “The Truth Dies with Them,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 31 – Nov. 1, 2002:  The series finds “suspicious deaths of young children in Washington since 1997 in which legal and medical authorities failed to investigate thoroughly… Hidden in thousands of pages of documents obtained through public disclosure requests are stories of bungled police investigations, missed clues, and elected coroners or prosecutors who didn't pursue hard questions… [A] P-I computer analysis of death records using a widely accepted statistical formula designed to estimate maltreatment deaths found that abuse and neglect have likely claimed the lives of 78 to 116 children during the same period -- up to 84 percent more than even police statistics reveal.

o       “Shootings ravage city neighborhoods,”  by Nathan Gorenstein, Barbara Boyer and Rose Ciotta, The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 20, 2005

o       "Badge of Immunity," The Columbus Dispatch

Ø      Race:

o       Elliot Jaspin’s project on “racial cleansing” in America:

o       “Leave or Die: America’s Hidden History of Racial Expulsions,” multimedia package, Austin American-Statesman

o       “Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America”  (Book, 2007)

Ø      Poverty

o       “Too Young to Die,” San Francisco Chronicle (five-part series), October 3-7, 2004

o       “The Black Belt:  Alabama’s Third World,” The Birmingham News, 2002-2003 (various dates):  A year-long series on the problems of Alabama's Black Belt; “Nowhere in Alabama do children and families face more hardship than in the 12 counties that make up Alabama's Black Belt. Children in towns such as Orrville in Dallas County begin life at such a disadvantage that they seldom catch up.” A story on Perry County uses U.S. Census records to help paint a picture of decay.

Ø      Health and medicine:

o       “Special report: State board doing little to stop reckless doctors,” Reno Gazette-Journal, February 16, 2004

o       "Will your ER be there for you?" by Diane Solov and Regina McEnery, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), April 1, 2001: “An analysis of Cuyahoga County's records of hospital diversions - when they close to ambulances and when they reopen - and of the ambulance runs of more than two dozen rescue squads in Greater Cleveland shows a pervasive problem…  [C]rowded conditions and lack of access have made paramedics and hospital workers on the front lines wonder whether the city has a brewing crisis on its hands.”

Ø      Law and lawmakers

o       “Financial Disclosures Don’t Always Add Up,” Lucy Morgan, St. Petersburg Times. Feb. 21, 2005.

o       “Web of Deceit,” Eric Eyre, Charleston Gazette (West Virginia), various dates in 2004; winner of an IRE medal, with the judges writing: “Eric Eyre relentlessly laid bare the misdeeds of a powerful state legislator who held two public jobs but did little work for one of them, diverted school money to fire departments, and broke promises not to use his influence unfairly. Then the state Ethics Commission cleared the lawmaker after he produced letters apparently disproving Eyre's work - until Eyre showed that the "too good to be true" letters were dated before the stationery was created. Voters ousted the politician, he and his wife were convicted of altering official documents and the speaker of the West Virginia House apologized to the Gazette for not believing the initial stories. “

Ø      Transportation

o       “Deadly teen auto crashes show a pattern,” Jayne O’Donnell, USA Today, March 1, 2005

o       "Death on the Tracks," by Walt Bogdanich, The New York Times, December 30, 2004.

Ø      Nonprofit organizations:

o       “Charities' Costs Sap Aid For Vets,” Matthew Kauffman, Hartford Courant, November 10, 2005.

o       “Tax Exempt!” by Edward T. Pound, Gary Cohen, Penny Loeb, U.S. News & World Report, October 2, 1995

o       IRS documents show ties between charity, sex cult; Tax-exempt foundation that raises money for projects around world denies links to sect,” Don Lattin, The San Francisco Chronicle, February 6, 2005.

Ø      Environment

o       “In Harm’s Way," The Houston Chronicle

o       “Vanishing Wetlands,” St. Petersburg Times

“They won’t say no”

“Satellite photographs show losses”

o       "Toxic Legacy" The Record (Bergen County, N.J.), Oct. 2-6, 2005

o       “Plants detail impact of toxic releases,” by James Bruggers and Gregory A. Hall, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), June 10, 2004: “An unchecked release of toxic chemicals from any one of dozens of plants in the Louisville metropolitan area — from chemical plants to a commercial bakery — could sicken thousands of residents. And the potential impact can go far beyond a company's property, according to risk-management plans filed by the companies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Ø      Utilities

o       “Lead levels in water misrepresented across the U.S.; Utilities manipulate or withhold test results to ward off regulators,” The Washington Post, Oct. 5, 2004

Ø      Real estate and banking:

o       “Landmark Predatory Lending Suit Settled; 7-Year Fight Can End With Judge's Approval,” The Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2005 (Outcome of events following a 1996 Washington Post investigation and the FTC’s subsequent “national assault on abusive lending.”

o       “Swimming With Sharks: Subprime lenders put the bite on Baltimore's Poorest Homeowners,” City Paper, Baltimore, March 29, 2000

Ø      War

o       “Civil claims provide glimpse into war's impact on Iraqi citizens,” Dayton Daily News, October 23, 2004