North Carolina’s News & Observer wins 26th Annual Brechner Award
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The News & Observer has been named the winner of the 26th Annual Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award for exposing how public employees who lied, cheated and stole from the taxpayers of North Carolina benefited from one of the country’s most secretive personnel records laws. The News & Observer’s coverage eventually resulted in significant changes to North Carolina’s law, resulting in more openness and transparency.
“These stories demonstrate the critical role investigative reporting and freedom of information laws play in exposing the misconduct and at times, criminal conduct of public employees,” said Sandra F. Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
The series was recognized with a $3,000 prize, which was presented to The News & Observer reporter Dan Kane at a ceremony on April 20 at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
“The News & Observer’s strong investigative reporting revealed shocking incidents of corruption and dishonesty by public employees and elected officials,” Chance said. “This is the kind of reporting that reminds us of how important a free press is in guarding against government wrongdoing.”
Kane reported how easily abusive cops, teachers who slept with their students and clerks who stole from the public coffers could change jobs with little risk of exposure. His investigation detailed how these employees received undeserved pensions, undisclosed perks and years of inflated salaries. Following the groundbreaking series, North Carolina’s Legislature passed major reforms, opening up what had been one of the nation’s most secretive personnel laws to allow for significantly more transparency.
The annual award was established by the late Joseph L. Brechner, an Orlando broadcaster. Previous award winners include: the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, The St. Petersburg Times, The Dallas Morning News, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Houston Chronicle.
Florida counties surveyed on use of social media
The Brechner Center also revealed the results of a research project that focused on the use of social media and smartphones by government officials. The researchers performed an audit of Florida’s 67 counties to learn more about their policies related to capturing public records created on social media or mobile devices. A public records request for each county’s policies, as well as an optional questionnaire, was distributed to county administrators last summer.
Of the 67 counties contacted, 12 were completely unresponsive to the public records request or a subsequent follow-up. Sixteen counties provided relevant policies, which indicated that branding and consistency are major concerns related to social media. While public records are mentioned in most policies, they serve more as reminders of the law than sources of specific guidance for how to achieve compliance. Two county policies explicitly prohibited the use of social media, citing open government laws as a barrier to use.
The answers to the optional questionnaire show that social media isn’t as widely adopted as one might expect, with just a little more than half of the 53 respondents reporting county use of social media. For open government advocates, this adoption rate might mean more time to work to ensure that safeguards are in place to capture records, which is especially important in light of the only 20 of 28 counties using social media reporting retention of posts, and only 10 of the 53 respondents reporting retention of text messages.
“I was disappointed that so many counties would ignore multiple public records requests, and I think that finding is important on its own,” Christina Locke, a University of Florida doctoral student who helped conduct the audit, said. “The audit is also valuable because it shows that what counties need is practical advice on how to capture the records, and I think that a roundtable among IT professionals and county administrators would be a great step in that direction.”
The Brechner Center exists to educate and promote freedom of information laws and policies. It serves the students of UF, Florida citizens, media lawyers and journalists around the country by providing training sessions, answering queries and conducting scholarly research on First Amendment issues.
- Quenta Vettel, Qvettel@jou.ufl.edu, 352-846-3013