Monday, January 30, 2012

Columbia police - really that clueless about FOIA?

Some day, I pray, the Rent-a-Clue truck is going to pull in front of the Columbia (S.C.) police department and actually deliver a load of common sense.

Until then, apparently, we will have to continue to fight through the cluelessness that characterizes the department's handling of information, especially when it comes to the state's Freedom of Information Act. OK, in the 20 years I've been in town running news operations, the cops have improved from pre-Cambrian era public information operations to something resembling the Victorian era. But maybe we could nudge a little closer, eh?

Case in point - this weekend, police issued a news release (which, interestingly enough, is not on the police website as of when this is written at least 48 hours later)  that there was a sexual assault allegation near the University of South Carolina campus. There were a few details, but not many, and the police would not say if the victim was a USC student.

Permit me a momentary digression, but what actually initially caught my eye in that story was the university police officer supposedly saying "state law prohibits the release of information regarding the victim in an alleged crime," which is patently false - it's only in sexual assaults. I suspected - hoped - that there had been a miscommunication between the reporter for the student paper and the USC police officer.

So I approached the reporter, a student in one of my classes. She was unclear from her notes as to whether wires might have gotten crossed with USCPD, but I advised her to ask for the police report, which brings us back to Columbia PD, the actual investigating agency.

She then sent me this lovely communication from Columbia PD's spokeswoman, Jennifer Timmons:

Due to the on-going investigation and sensitive nature of the allegation, it wouldn’t be appropriate to release the incident report at this time. This is a sexual assault allegation that the Columbia Police Department is investigating, and releasing specific information would be too premature.

Investigators are also still gathering additional information related to the case. Furthermore, state law prohibits the revealing or identifying any sexual assault victim or victim who reports such an allegation. I am relieved to know that you did receive my news release.

 Please review Section 30-4-40 of South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act:

SECTION 30 4 40. Matters exempt from disclosure.
(a) A public body may but is not required to exempt from disclosure the following information: (1) Trade secrets, which are defined as unpatented, secret, commercially valuable plans, appliances, formulas, or processes, which are used for the making, preparing, compounding, treating, or processing of articles or materials which are trade commodities obtained from a person and which are generally recognized as confidential and work products, in whole or in part collected or produced for sale or resale, and paid subscriber information. Trade secrets also include, for those public bodies who market services or products in competition with others, feasibility, planning, and marketing studies, marine terminal service and nontariff agreements, and evaluations and other materials which contain references to potential customers, competitive information, or evaluation. (2) Information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute unreasonable invasion of personal privacy. Information of a personal nature shall include, but not be limited to, information as to gross receipts contained in applications for business licenses and information relating to public records which include the name, address, and telephone number or other such information of an individual or individuals who are handicapped or disabled when the information is requested for person to person commercial solicitation of handicapped persons solely by virtue of their handicap. This provision must not be interpreted to restrict access by the public and press to information contained in public records. (3) Records of law enforcement and public safety agencies not otherwise available by state and federal law that were compiled in the process of detecting and investigating crime if the disclosure of the information would harm the agency by: (A) disclosing identity of informants not otherwise known; (B) the premature release of information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action; (C) disclosing investigatory techniques not otherwise known outside the government; (D) by endangering the life, health, or property of any person; or (E) disclosing any contents of intercepted wire, oral, or electronic communications not otherwise disclosed during a trial. (4) Matters specifically exempted from disclosure by statute or law.

With warmest regards,
Jennifer Timmons

Well, gee, Jennifer, with warmest regards, get your head out of where the sun doesn't shine and review some relevant court cases and some other parts of the law, specifically 30-4-30:
(d) The following records of a public body must be made available for public inspection and copying during the hours of operations of the public body without the requestor being required to make a written request to inspect or copy the records when the requestor appears in person:

(1) minutes of the meetings of the public body for the preceding six months;

(2) all reports identified in Section 30-4-50(A)(8) for at least the fourteen-day period before the current day; and

(3) documents identifying persons confined in any jail, detention center, or prison for the preceding three months.

That cryptic reference in (2) there? That's to police incident reports. And the word used is "must," not "if you feel like it." In short, the Legislature went out of its way to specify that police incident reports are public records open to everyone.

And, looking at the section you cite, 30-4-40, try reading a little farther in:

(b) If any public record contains material which is not exempt under subsection (a) of this section, the public body shall separate the exempt and nonexempt material and make the nonexempt material available in accordance with the requirements of this chapter. (Thanks to Bill Rogers of the SC Press Association for the reminder)

Then let's hop over to the court files, where you'll find there isn't even really a conflict between this and the privacy provision because the S.C. Supreme and appeals courts routinely have held that police departments can't make up privacy exemptions. Further, the court has clearly held that nonprivate information in such reports must be segregated from disclosable information - in this case that would cover the name and other very specific related information, and that's about it. In fact, Jennifer, here's some specific language from one of the controlling cases, Burton v. York County Sheriff's Department:

In sum, we emphasize that law enforcement agencies do not have carte blanche to deny all FOIA requests for criminal investigative reports.  The information contained in these reports can be withheld from disclosure only to the extent that it falls within one or more of the exemptions enumerated in section 30-4-40(a).  The determination as to which portions of a report are exempt and which portions must be disclosed should be done on a case-by-case basis. (from an earlier case). ...

Unless and until the Supreme Court rules otherwise, we will follow its precedent and not expand the “right of privacy” under the Fourteenth Amendment beyond those situations which the Court has ruled bear on the most intimate decisions affecting personal autonomy—namely reproductive rights, familial and marital relations.
This has been backed up by an even more recent ruling at the Circuit Court level by a judge who permanently enjoined the state Department of Public Safety from citing an "ongoing investigation" as a reason to withhold records. (Updated 11:17 a.m. 1/31)

Notwithstanding, apparently the Columbia PD feels it has the authority to declare by fiat the ability to designate a much wider privacy exemption, unlike the S.C. attorney general's office, which seems to have a clear grasp of the law (PDF).

We'll assume for now that the spokeswoman is just passing on bad legal advice. So we'll let the lawyers jaw a bit - until the next time Columbia PD wants to make it up, and the next time, and the next time. ...

(South Carolina has a long history of various shenanigans to avoid the law - even when police are clearly told they can't do what they are telling officers to do.)

Columbia is part way into the first term of a new mayor, Steve Benjamin, and a new police chief. It will be interesting to see if this administration ever grows enough kahunas to demand that the city police stop making up the law and start following it.

With warmest regards.

Update: When I wrote this, I suspected, but could not confirm, that Jennifer Timmons is the same JT who used to be a journalist at a local TV station, WACH. One of my Facebook friends has now confirmed it - which makes me even more disappointed that she would mindlessly spew this kind of BS.

Update 3:45 p.m.: Timmons now claiming police need an FOI request letter even though the law clearly says the reports must be available for public inspection in person, no letter required.  The cluelessness continues.

Update 4:30 p.m.: Reporter goes to cop shop (with copy of law) - asks to see report. Desk officer says only Timmons can provide (which is against the law as it is, since the reports are supposed to be out for public inspection). Calls Timmons' office. Timmons supposedly there and coming down. No one shows. Desk officer calls office again. Timmons has left. Well, I think we've settled the question about whether Timmons is a professional. Timmons emails back that she had not left but had gone to talk to assistant chief. That's not what the records officer told reporter.

Update 2/1: The police have now released the incident report (see below). It's what I expected - mostly blacked out - though there still are some nuggets to be gleaned - that the victim was probably from the nearby town of Lexington, that the person and the attacker were acquainted and that someone, probably the victim, told police both were using alcohol. None of this should be used without more reporting, of course, but good reporters use these no matter how redacted for clues to dig up more information. And for the campus paper, where the threshold question among readers is likely to be "do we have a rapist loose in the neighborhood," those can be valuable clues to pursue.


Still agonizing over letting readers in

A blog post today by the editor of the Island Packet serving Hilton Head Island, S.C., and environs shows how journalists still agonize over letting their readers "in" to the newspaper pages (or, more really, the websites).

Editor Jeff Kidd has posted 12 questions to help us determine how much 'citizen journalism' you want at,

Some are interesting, again illustrating the neurosis we have about this:

  • If clearly labeled user-submitted content was inaccurate, would it diminish your regard for staff-produced stories, photos and other content? 
  • If clearly labeled user-submitted content was obscene or in poor taste, would it diminish your regard for staff-produced stories, photos and other content? 
 Kidd precedes the questions (most of the rest are about what things people read on the website and how they access it) with these observations, beginning with the thesis that the papers (the doublet includes the Beaufort Gazette) already are hyperlocal because of their focus on the local community and that they already allow "citizen journalism" through things like user photo galleries, community calendars and school lunch menus.

He goes on:

But there's no doubt the terms take on new meaning in an online age, particularly one coming to be marked by ability to both produce and consume news from smartphones and other mobile devices. This creates the possibility of unfiltered publications from the field, though most traditional-media outlets have not gone that far. We still submit to the model for in-print publication, where space is limited, one thing is published to the exclusion of something else, and thus choices are made about what goes in and what doesn't. Even the most gently edited submissions at the Packet and Gazette are reworked or reformatted so that it is distilled to its essence.

Website operations, on the other hand, largely remove the space constraint (though there is still much utility in winnowing away extraneous verbiage and information.) It also greatly reduces the turn-around time for publication. In fact, if we were so inclined, we could publish a a photo of little Jimmy's 11th birthday party as quickly as it takes little Jimmy's mommy to hit send on her smartphone's touch screen.

Of course, at this point we don't actually publish reader-submitted information instantaneously, either, and for good reason — newsworthiness and veracity are the coins of our realm. Allowing anyone to slap anything they want on our site with no approval — let alone verification — presents potential problems. After all, it takes little imagination to think of what could go wrong if a frat boy with an iPhone can immediately post a photo from impromptu wet T-shirt contest that erupted at the kegger. We want more community news, but we also want to remain a publication suitable for family reading.

Nonetheless, we doubtlessly will creep closer toward faster turnaround and yet more opportunities for folks like you to send in news of your everyday lives.
My problem: This doesn't sound to me like a publication that particularly wants "citizen journalism," but one that can get increasing amounts of content on the cheap  -- just making it easier for your readers to shovel more content on your site because there may be ways to increasingly take the human factor out of screening it.

Here's the thing: Those readers are joyfully passing you by with their (humdrum) "everyday lives" and their mobile phones and tablets, passing you by to the point where you become less relative, not more.

If you really care about hyperlocal journalism, then you realize digital is about not only content but community. And online, community is far different from how journalists, even those at smaller operations like this, have tended to define it. It is not us handling "The News" and, oh, by the way, we'll let you have a little place at the side of the table.

True community would actually mean doing more "screening" -- in other words, getting more staff involved. Only it's not "screening," but curating and engaging -- inviting your readers in as co-contributors to the process, not just as some kind of cheap content creators.

When we see newsrooms get that, we'll know they're ready for the 21st century.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Editteach: Two good examples from NPR

If you are teaching writing and editing, you could do worse than to have students listen to these two examples from NPR

(I like using audio to help teach because it shows the power of creating pictures in people's heads while also being a bit more dimensional than just print. It also shows the necessity for all writers to use their ears and eyes in ways to pick up details like nat sound that yo  can then describe in text.)

Wade Goodwyn's moving and detailed story about troops returning home in December 2-11

Tracy Samilton's fun story today about how Craftsman decided to debut a riding lawnmower at the Detroit Auto Show (unfortunately, the transcript has taken some of the life and fun out of the story - make sure you listen).

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Monday, January 09, 2012

Have you met his cousin, Zippity -doo-dah?

Some headlines just write themselves ...
But imagine trying to do this in print with a one-coumn, tight count, like a 10 or 12.

(Thanks to Gary Karr for the pointer.)

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Blackboard strikes again - RIP dropbox

Ah yes, the Blackboard overlords have struck again adding yet another reason to my list of hating this course management system.

In v9.1, BB has eliminated the dropbox, helpfully suggesting that if you want to exchange files with students, use the "assignment manager."

Only, did anyone think that not every file exchange involves an assignment?

Dropbox, for instance, was perfect for sending a large audio editing review file privately to a student that was too large for email and then deleting it. Since the original story was not a traditional "assignment," it would be cumbersome at best to do it that way.

(For instance, the "assignment" here involves multiple versions of multiple items that are part of a story package - much better done through a server. The problem with returning the audio review file back through the server is the lack of FERPA privacy.)

And if a student needed to quick send me a large file back privately, it was easy enough to run it through Dropbox and then delete it.

(Yes, I can probably set up something through one of the online exchange services; it's just one more site and one more password and one more thing to complicate matters when this was a perfectly elegant solution, elegant being a word you don't hear associated much with BB.)

So instead of improving Dropbox with things like batch download and batch delete - after all, that would be soooooo 2005 - BB just does away with it.

Nice going. Let's see if we can find more to expand the list.

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Editteach: Dissecting another fire story

This one is online today from a TV station site.* (Seems I'm specializing in fire stories these days.) Updated to also correct street name.
Columbia, SC (WLTX)--An early morning fire is smoldering at The Salty Nut Cafe in Five Points.
Not a bad lede. If you are keeping score at home and use AP style, that should be S.C., but no one says the station has to do that. One might also ask why "SC" is needed on a story from a Columbia station, but this is the "world wide" Web, so such things are in flux.

Authorites say there was heavy black smoke when they arrived at 4:30 Friday morning.
Again, not bad (not counting the misspelling of "authorities," but lord knows how many times I've done that). However, this is a breaking story, so why say "Friday"? Still, we come back to the "world wide" thing - it's not Friday everywhere. So defensible.

The fire is now under control, but the 2000 block of Green* Street remains shutdown. Authorities say the cafe suffered heavy damage because they did not have a sprinkler system.
Now we run into some problems. The street is Greene, not Green. Shutdown, one word, is a noun. It should be "shut down" as a verb. And a bar is not a "they," but an "it." That's especially confusing here because the plural antecedent is "authorities" - did they not have sprinklers? (And why not just say sprinklers, instead of the more officious "sprinkler system"?) You could also question here why the phrase "suffered heavy damage because" is needed since the next sentence is more specific on the damage. I'd delete it, leaving just: "Authorities say the cafe did not have sprinklers."

Chief Audrey Jenkins says there was thousands of dollars worth of damage and the building is totally damaged on the inside. This was a very popular spot for people to congregate and it will be a while before they reopen.
Oops. The fire chief's name is "Aubrey." The verb links with "thousands," so "were" is preferred - but "are" would be even better to keep things current in a breaking story. Phrases using "worth" get an apostrophe (thousands of dollars' worth). Even better: Chief Aubrey Jenkins says there are thousands of dollars in damage ... or ... Chief Aubrey Jenkins says damage totals thousands of dollars.
I have no idea what "totally damaged on the inside" means. Totally damaged usually means destroyed, and inside is where buildings usually are damaged, so the whole phrase does no work. Cut it. Recast the second sentence to correct the pronoun and insert a comma (and you can probably drop "very," though I wouldn't get all hung up on that): This was a popular spot for people to congregate, and it will be a while before it reopens. (Let's save the debate about attribution on that for a different time, though I tend not to like naked assertions.)

An investigation is underway and no injuries have been reported.
Again, if you are scoring at home and using AP style, that's "under way," though I have been suggesting for years that AP drop that as increasingly anacrhonistic. A comma would be useful after "underway."
*The story is being updated, so some things have changed from the original here.

**In one of those wonderfully annoying things media companies like Gannett do online to rake in more cash, "Green" in the original story was a double-underlined ad link. Clicking on it did not take you to something useful like a map but to an ad for a Prius. Gotta love it. (The correct street name spelling might have prevented that.)

(With acknowledgement and apologies to Deborah Gump, one of the world's superior editing teachers and creator of the Editteach site, I have decided to use that as the standard header and tag for these kinds of dissections. It just so succinctly sums up what these posts are about. But do visit the site if you want a rich experience learning about editing.)

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