Nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica has launched a project that asks volunteers in five states that prohibit out-of-state public-records requests to help the media outlet gain access to documents.
New York-based ProPublica is asking citizens of Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia and Delaware to sign up for its Reporting Network Doc Squad and lend a hand with open-records requests to those state governments.
“We frequently reach out to our readers for assistance with our reporting,” said Amanda Michel, editor of distributed reporting. “We think this is one great example of how the press and public can work together on something for the public good.”
The idea for the Doc Squad came about when reporter Michael Grabell was informed that his records request for documents from Tennessee had been denied because he is an out-of-state resident. He and Michel, who has organized citizen input for other projects, decided to put out the call for assistance soon afterward.
“This fit in perfectly this new model of journalism where you use a crowd to do a story that one or two journalists can’t do on their own,” Grabell said. “As a national media outlet, we are frequently doing stories that are in one state but affect all of us.”
Grabell said that he has hit roadblocks before when dealing with national issues like federal spending. Citizens across the country helped ProPublica track 500 projects that received federal stimulus funding for roads and bridges.
“As a resident of New York, part of my taxes goes to fund highway projects in Tennessee and Arkansas, but I don’t get to see how my money is spent,” he said.
Though Tennessee and Arkansas have denied him access to files, Virginia, Georgia and Delaware have fulfilled previous records requests.
“Not all states follow this rule so rigidly because they feel journalists from out of state have interests that can serve their citizens,” Grabell said.