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SAGE Publications

Cover Image: The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records
  • Date: 02/23/2010
  • Format: Print Paperback
  • Price: $35.00
  • ISBN: 978-1-60426-550-7
  • Pages: 200
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The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records
David Cuillier, University of Arizona
Charles N. Davis, University of Missouri

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Whatever you’re trying to learn about the world—as a journalist or as an informed citizen— public records often hold the key. But what records, where? And how to get them? It starts with understanding the Freedom of Information Act, but what you really need are strategies for dealing with the officials who stand between you and the information you seek. Gaining access to records is an art, one that requires an organized approach and a good understanding of human behavior.

The Art of Access is a how-to guide for putting the law into action and using ingenuity to pry records loose. Building on their own experience and interviews with more than 100 practitioners, FOI experts and longtime journalists David Cuillier and Charles Davis help you rethink the information-gathering process and develop a document state of mind. With Cuillier and Davis’s strategies, get ready to:

  • overcome roadblocks and illegal denials;
  • better understand government officials’ perspectives so you can more successfully work with them;
  • find more and better online resources and mine them effectively; and 
  • write document-based stories that resonate with readers.

A “Pro Tips” feature showcases advice from some of the best in the business, from media lawyers and prominent journalists to a private investigator and other access experts. At the end of each chapter, a Try It! section offers exercises and story ideas that will empower you to start finding and using documents right away. Appendixes include a comprehensive list of online FOI resources as well as an annotated Record Album that guides you A–Z to records on everything from abandoned buildings and air quality to workplace safety and zoning.

 The Art of Access Blog!
Visit the authors’ blog for updates to the book’s handy Record Album, linking readers to hundreds of sources for public records. Also find story ideas, tips, as well as course activities and assignments.

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ISBN: 978-1-60426-550-7 Format: Print Paperback Retail Price: $35.00 Price to Bookstores: $28.00

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Tom Blanton, National Security Archive

1. Records that matter: Improve your community, career and life
Find great stories
Advance your reporting and career
Improve your life
Develop a new way of thinking
Try it!
Suggested links

2. Develop a document state of mind
Be The Donald
Exercise your document muscles
Find inspiration and support
Try it!
Suggested links

3. Become an access law expert
Master the law in five steps
Dip into alphabet laws
Access public meetings
Tap into legal resources
Try it!
Suggested links

4. The hunt: Find records in the dark
Explore document habitats
Find records in records
Build on others’ successes
Try it!
Suggested links

5. Strategies for effective requests
Do your homework
Write effective letters
‘Get to yes’ through principled negotiation
Apply hard tactics if necessary
Try it!
Suggested links

6. How to overcome denials
Understand the nature of ‘no’
Respond to common denials
If the agency says . . .
Play hardball
Try it!
Suggested links

7. Going digital: Strategies for getting data
Become familiar with data
Get the database
Counter cyber-denials
Teach yourself database journalism
Try it!
Suggested links

8. Understand how public officials think
Comprehend bureaucratic culture
Identify agency constraints
Help them help you
Try it!
Suggested links

9. Putting it together: Writing the FOI story and FOI ethics
Create great record-based stories
Do the right thing: FOI ethics
Give people context
Write about FOI
Become an FOI warrior
Try it!
Suggested links

Appendix A. The Record Album
Appendix B. FOI resources

The Art of Access is more than just a highly readable primer on obtaining public records; it’s a fantastic, in-depth resource for anyone seeking information from or about their government. This is a guide that can help you turn a public official’s ‘right to no’ into your ‘right to know.’ - Pete Weitzel, former managing editor, Miami Herald, and former director of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government

This clear, concise and timely book provides a step-by-step guide for turning the overhyped rhetoric of transparency into a much-needed reality. Cuillier and Davis, both veterans of the access wars, provide journalists and citizens alike with the keys to unlocking the secrets held in public records that government officials too often like to stow away. Replete with tips from professional journalists, a bevy of relevant websites and many handy checklists, this book is a practical guide for navigating the often bumpy road to getting the government records you want and need. - Clay Calvert, Professor and Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication, University of Florida

Open government laws such as the Freedom of Information Act provide us with powerful political tools, but we don’t always know how to use them. This superb handbook distills the most effective techniques for gaining access to official records. It will help readers become more skillful requesters, and better citizens. - Steven Aftergood, Director, Project on Government Secrecy

Without a doubt, [this is] the most accessible guidebook on access to government information that you’re likely to find anywhere. - Daniel J. Metcalfe, Executive Director, Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University Washington College of Law

“Awesome tips and insights about accessing public records! A ‘must-have’ resource for journalists, civic activists and anyone else who wants to use public records power to the fullest.” - Joe Adams, creator of idiganswers.com, author of e-book “Secrets of the Scoop: Using Public Records to Uncover News and Change the World.”

A must read for anyone who wants to understand how access to government information really happens on the ground. Even individuals outside the journalistic community who are new to the art of getting access to government information will especially benefit from the authors' thoughtful and eminently readable navigation of the maze. - Patrice McDermott, director, OpenTheGovernment.org
David Cuillier, University of Arizona

David Cuillier, Ph.D., is chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ national Freedom of Information Committee and is a newsroom FOI trainer for the national SPJ on-the-go newsroom training program. He gathered public records as a government reporter and city editor for a dozen years at daily newspapers in the Pacific Northwest. He is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, teaching computer-assisted reporting, public affairs reporting and access to information. He has earned national honors for his access teaching exercises and research in freedom of information, including the 2007 Nafziger-White Dissertation Award by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication for the top dissertation in the field.

Charles N. Davis, University of Missouri

Charles N. Davis, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, former chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ national Freedom of Information Committee, and is an SPJ newsroom trainer in FOI. A former newspaper reporter and national correspondent for Dublin-based Lafferty Publications, Davis currently teaches access to information and media law at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has been honored by SPJ with a Sunshine Award for his work in FOI, and in 2009 he was named the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Teacher of the Year. In 2009-10 he was head of the Law and Policy Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He has been published extensively in academic and professional journals, and is first author of the book Access Denied: Freedom of Information in the Information Age.

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