In her first newspaper job with The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Md., Kelly Hinchcliffe got a call that the school district called a news conference.
Why? she asked many times, but no one explained.
So when Hinchcliffe showed up and saw a stack of press releases on the table, she grabbed one and sat down.
A public information officer rushed over and said she couldn’t have the release until after the press conference.
“I said, well, it becomes a public record when it’s created, not when you say you want to hand it to me,” Hinchcliffe told the woman.
A tug-of-war over that press release followed, “and I’m telling her, the public records law says…” Hinchcliffe said in a phone interview with Poynter.
Hinchcliffe, now an investigative reporter with WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C., still plays tug-of-war for public records, when necessary. Her blog, Public Records Geek, shares those stories.
And this week, in honor of Sunshine Week, she’s sharing stories of other journalists and what their requests produce.
“I love public records,” she said. “There’s so many great stories you can find if you just know where to look for them.”
For Hinchcliffe, that looking first started during a summer internship with NBC’s “Dateline” in Washington, D.C. She and fellow interns spent the summer filing public records requests for inspection reports for restaurants around the country.
Some states sent the requests right over. Others interrogated her. “Some refused,” Hinchcliffe said.
The process itself was fascinating.
At her first job, Hinchcliffe’s editor encouraged all the reporters to understand public records laws and how to request information, “and that really started my interest in it.”
Hinchcliffe started Public Records Geek in 2010 when another editor encouraged her to share what she knew and do something for herself. That year, Hinchcliffe’s younger brother died, and she took a break from the blog. She looks at public records, such as autopsy reports, differently now that she’s had to view them as a family member.
Hinchcliffe started the blog up again in February of this year, and she wants to feature a mix of what she’s found as well as the work of other reporters and the different ways they work.
Her own work, thanks to public records, includes a database she created with the contracts of the 115 school superintendents in North Carolina. In those contracts, Hinchcliffe found superindendents with free housing written in, a mortgage in another state covered, even a $4,300 fence built to keep a dog inside.
“Those are just things that you wouldn’t know unless you got the contract,” she said.
She also always requests the correspondence logs of North Carolina’s governors, and during the past governor’s term, Hinchcliffe found a letter from a teacher who’d been nominated teacher of the year before getting laid off. She wrote a story from that, too.
Public records laws differ greatly from state to state, and Hinchcliffe doesn’t think most of the people who work in public information have shady intentions on hiding information. Many just aren’t familiar with the law, she said.
“And I feel like as a journalist, it’s my job to know the law.”
It’s also, sometimes, pretty funny.
In March, Hinchcliffe wrote a piece on how Deadspin editor Barry Petchesky used public records requests to the FCC for viewer complaints about the Super Bowl.
She also writes about her own request for a list of North Carolina’s rejected liscence plates.
“Was it hard-hitting investigative journalism? No, but it was nice to take a break from the serious stories I was working on,” Hinchcliffe wrote on her blog about the license-plate story. “It’s not every day that you get to write P00HAPNS.”
Kristen Hare is an online reporter with The Poynter Institute.