In the wake of USF Student Government Elections, it’s been an interesting time to learn about the plethora of public records that are available to political journalists who are writing about the candidates and the campaign trail in local, state and national elections.
Journalism professor Wayne Garcia spoke to our class on Monday about all of the resources that we can easily access online when we’re doing our research on political leaders and organizations — such as the Federal Elections Commission’s website and Political Money Line, a website that lists financial contributions to candidates and by whom they were made.
I was interested to find out that this information is so readily accessible, because I always thought this was something that candidates would be able to hide and would want to even keep hidden from the public. If someone donates more than $100 to a political candidate, they are required to disclosure their name and their occupation, which can help journalists determine who is endorsing who during the campaign trail.
I was also surprised to learn that one person can donate a maximum of $2,600 to a political candidate, because it always seems like candidates, especially on a national level, have a lot more money than what you would think could be generated that way. Professor Garcia explained to us the differences between “hard money” and “soft money” in politics, and understanding the differences can help explain why candidates are able to afford their campaigning materials. With hard money it can be easily tracked and monitored, but soft money can become more difficult to follow, because with soft money the origin is not as transparent and candidates aren’t required to report where it came from.
While learning about all of these resources, it interested me how closely USF’s Student Government elections follow a similar format. On the Student Government website, students can access records that list how much money the candidates have spent on their campaigns, as well as information on their endorsements and what all has been put into their campaign.
Even on the university level, the transparency in government is pretty high, which helps affirm Professor Garcia’s argument that as journalists, we are working as political watchdogs for the public.
“It’s our job to make [this information] visible, and that’s what we do,” Garcia said.
“There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.”
- Beverly Sills
When I first signed up for this trip, I had no idea how much planning it would take to get there.
I’m less than three months away from leaving for Ghana, and all that’s been on my mind lately is fundraising, vaccinations and waiting on my passport to arrive. This will be my first time leaving the country, and all the things I’ve had to consider are completely mind-boggling to me.
Last week I started researching Ghana and traveling abroad in general. So far, I’ve learned that my cell phone won’t work, nor will my health insurance. I have a list of shots that I get to cringe like a baby while getting (I’m not a fan of needles), and I guess I need to tell my bank I’m leaving the country so they don’t shut down my bank cards. Oh, and clean water is listed as more of a luxury in Ghana, and you’re not to assume you’re going to have it at wherever you stay.
Despite all of these daunting realizations, I’m truly excited for this trip. We’re selling Threads of Hope to raise money. They’re bracelets and bookmarks made by families in the Philippines, and half of our proceeds go back to them, while the other half go back to us. We’ve also done a letter writing campaign, and the team is planning a fundraising event for the middle of March.
It’s crazy, and nerve-racking and exciting all at once. But with every meeting I go to, every handout I receive and every line I read in the books I bought, I realize that much more clearly that I’m finally leaving the country, and it’s to volunteer abroad in Africa.
It’s starting to feel real.
At the Fred B. Karl County Center in downtown Tampa, there are millions of records on file within the confines of the building, the place that collects, records, indexes and archives public records in Hillsborough County.
“There are so many things that are accomplished by this office on a daily basis,” JoAnn Constantini, director of the official records department said.
It was interesting to me just how many files are housed in the county center. In 2008, there were more than 90 million records on file, the clerk of court processed 1.3 million document pages. There are also 42 different types of documents that the county center is responsible for.
I hadn’t realized before hearing from the clerk of court that there were so many documents just in Hillsborough County alone. It makes me wonder how many there are in the state, or the nation. It showed me just how much the clerk of court is responsible for and the huge amount of documents that they deal with on a regular basis.
Another thing that was interesting to me was how many of the documents they deal with are still in paper form rather than electronically transmitted. With the vast majority of other government bodies that are relying so heavily on the digital age, and how easy it is to archive and locate documents when they’re stored in an online database rather than filing cabinets in a building, it makes me wonder why there hasn’t been a faster transition toward the computers. With the amount of documents the county center sees though, I could understand why the process would take so long.
The biggest takeaway that I gained from hearing from officials at the county center was that they said a great deal of public records come to the county center, and that basically everything goes through them in order to become “public.” This stood out to me because as a journalist, I’m going to need to know where to go to obtain my information, and the county center may not be a bad place to start.
Seeing the inside and everyday workings of the Orient Road Jail wasn’t exactly what I expected.
When someone pictures a jail, they usually picture the cliché setting depicted in a television or movie with dusty and written on walls, rusty metal bars and undesirable living conditions that don’t seem healthy or safe for anyone to be kept in for days, months or even years at a time.
To my surprise, the jail didn’t look as unbearable to be in as I imagined, and the procedures and policies in place actually seemed quite reasonable. Not that I would want to end up in jail, though.
“We treat the inmate as humanely as we can, and we expect the same back,” said Lt. Scott Smith, Orient Road Jail Shift Commander.
The jail opened in 1990 and has very little graffiti or scratching’s on the walls according to Smith. The place looks like an ordinary building from an outsider’s perspective, with a kitchen area and chairs and the doors that are the cells for the inmates, or “pods” as Smith called them. To me, it looked very similar to a washed out college dorm.
The jail has a system where there are frequent headcounts throughout the day, and there’s also a deputy in each area so the inmates are always being watched. This system, compared to older methods, Smith said, has increased the safety in the jail.
“Back in the linear types of jails, the biggest inmate in the cell kind of ran it,” Smith said. “We eliminated that theory and put the deputy in here so the deputy runs it. So if the inmates are having trouble, they have somewhere right here who is an authority figure.”
Inmates will technically spend up to 364 days in the jail for their sentence, because anything longer than that is to be served in a federal prison. Some inmates however are in their longer because their cases take years to come through the courts, or they have been served multiple 364 day sentences to be served at different points.
It was interesting to learn how many things in the jail are accessible as public records, such as phone records on inmates, the logs that the guards keep on people in confinement, fingerprinting records as well as arrest reports. In the logs, the guards also keep track of inmate’s weight and height to monitor their health and determine possible health problems, which is also public record. I didn’t even realize the jails take all of these things into consideration with inmates.
I was surprised to learn that the regular judge in first appearance court gets creative with his sentencing, and that when he isn’t in court due to weekends or vacation, that the jail will see an increase in population because of it. The regular judge has more flexibility to do all sorts of things, which interested me because I thought that type of job would be a lot more cut and dry than that, and things would be a lot more by the book.
The last thing that I was surprised by was the fact that the guards do not have guns in the jail’s secured confines. They have handcuffs, radio, can of OC foam spray, and certain ones have Tasers.
“Our main weapon is our brain,” Smith said. “You have to be able to think on your feet and react. Your second most valuable tool is your radio. At the beginning of each shift, everyone does a radio check.”
The University of South Florida lost four young men in a wrong-way crash on I-275 in Tampa early Sunday morning.
The accident occurred at approximately 2 a.m. Sunday morning when a vehicle heading southbound in the northbound lane hit another vehicle head on. The four students in the vehicle headed northbound, as well as the driver of the other vehicle, died at the scene.
All four men in the vehicle were members of Sigma Beta Rho Fraternity: Jobin Kuriakose, 21, was driving the vehicle with passengers Ankeet Patel, 22, Imtiyaz Ilias, 20 and Dammie Yesudhas, 21. The fraternity is planning an on-campus memorial service to be held on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in the Marshall Student Center.
Sigma Beta Rho posted a statement on their Facebook page on Sunday:
“We lost four honorable gentlemen. Our condolences go out to all of the families and friends that grieve with us today. We shall remember their lives and the joy that each one of these great men had brought to all of us. Their lives were taken far too soon. Take this as a reminder to never take life for granted. Let your loved ones know that you care about them now and everyday forward before it is too late.”
A roadside memorial was held for the I-275 crash victims on Sunday evening.
A GoFundMe page was created in memory of the fraternity brothers. The page was created to help raise funds needed for funeral services, and as of Monday morning, the page surpassed its goal of $40,000 and raised $45,000.
“Our hearts are heavy at the loss of such bright, energetic and optimistic young people who had promising futures ahead of them; to have their lives cut tragically short betrays our sense of fairness and security,” USF President Judy Genshaft said in a statement on the university’s website. “Now is the time when our faith and the support of those closest to us can sustain us, and should in tribute to their spirit of friendship and brotherhood.”
When searching for public records as a journalist, there isn’t always going to be just one location that you drive to every single time to get whatever it is you’re looking for.
The county sheriff’s office, the courthouse and the county jail all serve as places for reporters to go to locate documents they need for their stories, and depending on what information you’re looking for and what location you go to will determine what kind of access you have to the information.
On some records reports, J.D. Callaway, director of communications for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, told students they may be able to create an entire news story from the information on the reports.
“If you’re a good enough reporter, you can usually generate a story off of this,” he said.
What interested me about the sheriff’s office was they said traffic crash records are held for six months after the date of the accident to avoid “ambulance chasers,” from getting a hold of the information and trying to get involved. The only people allowed to view these records before those six months are up are those involved, the attorneys involved in a case concerning the accident and the insurance company of those affected.
I also didn’t know that information becomes public once it has reached the courthouse, and that the process of obtaining information before it has reached that point may be longer. As a reporter, it’s good to know that by going to the courthouse and the county jail, there is more information available to me than there may be at the sheriff’s office.
One of the things I was always confused about in previous reporting experiences was where to go to get certain types of information, and I think I have a more firm understanding of it now than I did before, as well as a better understanding of what it is information wise that I am entitled to as a reporter.
I think one of the bigger pieces of advice that I took away from learning about the sheriff’s office would be to walk in expecting to be entitled to the information that you’re looking for. Even if you get told that you’re not entitled to it, at least you tried to get the information in the first place. I was always apprehensive about asking for information when I first started reporting, but having a different mindset about what I am allowed to ask for has helped me out by leaps and bounds in the reporting process.
While working on a story concerning security footage of Polk County Sheriff’s deputies who were supposed to be working on a search warrant of a suspect’s home and instead ended up playing the suspect’s Wii console while on the job, WFLA Senior Investigative Reporter Steve Andrews told students that one of the skills that aided him the most in his reporting process was knowing how to work people in a way that not only holds them accountable, but makes them willing to talk to you at the same time.
One of the key elements in the reporting was the interview with the Polk County Sheriff that was interviewed for the story, and Andrews said it was important that he get the answers to his questions that he needed before ending the interview, but to also remain respectful toward the Sheriff.
While the Sheriff didn’t have an answer for everything regarding the deputies’ actions during the search, he did say that of the 1,800 people that were employed through the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, “not one of them is perfect.”
Before conducting the main interviews for the footage that ran with the story, Andrews said public records played a great deal of importance in helping him put the pieces together of the story, one that had been started with simply the footage of the officers playing Wii in the suspect’s home. The reporters looked at criminal records, courthouse records and arrest affidavits to help fill gaps in the story, and all of this information prior to interviews gave Andrews the knowledge needed to get key questions answered on camera, which only consisted of three questions.
A follow-up to the original story that ran included emails that Andrews had collected from Polk County Sheriff’s during the investigation, and gave a little bit more background information on how much the officers knew about the suspect and his home before going inside for the search warrant. I thought it was interesting that he compared the constant search for records to “mining for gems,” because it was a very accurate representation of what it can be like looking for that kind of information. You know what you’re looking for, but you just have to keep digging, and eventually you’ll come up with something that you were searching for.
Hearing from Andrews about what it was like to be reporting such a controversial story was interesting because he explained what was needed to keep the reporting process going: respect for his sources, knowledge of how to obtain the public records he was looking for and confidence in knowing what questions he needed to ask while in the interview. All of these elements combined were what made his story stand up, and it shows that while every element: reporter knowledge, records and interviews are essential to the reporting process, a story cannot truly stand up on its own unless it encapsulates all three elements to the best of its ability.