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The FOIA audit: How we did it

West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act allows any person a right to inspect

or copy any public record of a public body in the state.

Do public employees and officials readily offer citizens the “full and complete

information” required under the law?

To find out, the West Virginia Associated Press Managing Editors Association

conducted a statewide FOIA audit. The project was modeled on public records

audits conducted in other states by media organizations, state auditors and

academics.

In West Virginia, news reporters from 12 newspapers and the AP visited each of

the state’s 55 counties to assess FOIA compliance by county governments. The AP

and the AP managing editors’ group brought together the various news

organizations to do the work.

Auditors asked for incident reports from sheriff’s departments, employment

contracts from school superintendents, expense reports from county clerks and

operating budgets from county commissions.

Today, AP member newspapers across the state are publishing the first results

of the audit. Coverage will continue through Wednesday in The Charleston

Gazette.

News reporters who did the auditing represented themselves as citizens, not as

journalists. They declined to give their names or why they wanted the records,

as such things are not required for disclosure under the law.

Auditors tried to first obtain the records by simply asking for them. If they

were denied at first, they asked to speak to an office supervisor. If denied

again, they filed a formal, written FOIA request.

Terry Wimmer, Shott Chair of Journalism at West Virginia University,

coordinated the audit, and analyzed the results for the news organizations.

The news organizations that took part in the audit were the AP, the Beckley

Register-Herald, the Bluefield Telegraph, the Charleston Daily Mail, The

Charleston Gazette, the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram, the Elkins Inter-

Mountain, the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, the Martinsburg Journal, the

Morgantown Dominion Post, the Parkersburg News, the Weirton Daily Times and the

Wheeling News Register.


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