Colorado State Journalism Class Helps in National Project Examining Access to Public Information

A Colorado State University journalism class participated in a national project involving openness in government by examining the availability of online public records in state government.

The dozen students in the advanced reporting class determined that Colorado seems to be doing relatively well, with 15 of the 20 different kinds of records examined found online with free access. It was tied for sixth place among the 50 states in the number of records found in the survey, which was conducted as part of Sunshine Week, March 15-21. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Texas led the nation with all 20 of the surveyed records available for free online, while Mississippi came in last, with just four categories found for free online.

"If the public wants to access certain kinds of information online, such as nursing home inspection reports and hospital inspection reports, Colorado makes that information available online at no charge," said Kris Kodrich, an associate professor of journalism at Colorado State. "I believe state officials for the most part do understand the importance of making public information readily available to citizens."

The nationwide results of the survey of state government information online are available at The Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information online found that while more and more government records are being posted online, some of the most important information is being left offline. In some cases governments are charging taxpayers to access records that they already paid for, such as death certificates.

"Digital technologies can be a great catalyst for democracy, but the state of access today is quite uneven. The future of freedom of information is online access, and states have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of electronic self-governance," said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Kodrich, who also volunteers as the Colorado Sunshine chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, said having journalism students check online availability of public records helped them appreciate the wide range of public information that should be readily available from state and local governments.  

"This project helped the students think about the need for public access to the types of information the government collects," Kodrich said. "It also helped them reflect upon their duties as journalists and how they may use public data to find stories about trends, issues and potential societal problems – all part of the critical watchdog role that journalists play in a free and democratic society."

While the students found good access in such categories as personal financial disclosure reports for state officials, internal and external audit reports, teacher certifications, political campaign contributions, child care center inspection reports and department of transportation projects, Colorado did not provide online access in categories like gas pump overcharge records and fictitious business name registrations.

Some of the results were surprising, Kodrich said. For instance, while bridge inspection reports in Colorado are considered public, only limited information is available online and the full reports are not published online. Anyone who wants to see the full reports is advised to file an FOI, or Freedom of Information, request. In the area of death certificates, fees are involved. Other categories, such as environmental citations and violations, are difficult to find or have different sets of instructions depending on agencies – some agencies offer summary reports online, others want written requests, others provide access to files only in person.

"Public agencies should make public information readily available and easily searchable. The internet is a wonderful resource today – the public should easily be able to navigate the Web sites of government entities in order to find the information they desire," Kodrich said.

The study was developed by Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOI Committee.