Author Archives: Randy Dotinga

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About Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer based in San Diego and former president of the American Society of Journalists & Authors.

Red flag gun laws: Dig deeper to find stories that matter

Photo: Erica TricaricoJonathan Davis, executive director of the Baltimore Crisis Response; Shannon Frattaroli, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Veronica Pear, an assistant professor at University of California-Davis, during the “‘Red Flag’ Laws: The use of court orders to reduce gun violence” session.

In recent years, multiple states have made headlines for approving “red flag” laws or extreme risk projections orders, which allow judges to order the confiscation of firearms from people considered to be dangerous to themselves or others.

But too often, that’s where the reporting stops — right after a vote in a legislature and a governor’s signature. Two professors who study the measures urge journalists to find news by following up to see what happened next. 

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Public records: Dig deep (but curb your expectations)

Lexi Churchill of ProPublica (at the podium) and Sandhya Kambhampati of the Los Angeles Times (to the right) talking to attendees during the FOIA panel at Health Journalism 2022. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Gilyard)

Rhode Island freelance writer Philip Eil, a veteran of an extended public records battle, has some stark advice for any journalist determined to wrestle important documents from the government: “Expect nothing, and expect it to take forever.”

That sounds discouraging. But, as Eil told colleagues on Thursday, April 29 at Health Journalism 2022 during the “Making FOIA work for you: How to get the public records you want” panel, low expectations serve two purposes. They help you avoid becoming emotionally involved. And they make your hard-won victories even sweeter.

Eil should know: His very first bid for public records turned into a fight that went all the way to a federal appeals court as he sought the documents he needed to report on the notorious “pill mill” physician whose opioid prescriptions ravaged an Ohio town. “I was unwilling,” he said, “to take no for an answer.”

Eil’s fellow panelists offered their own tips about mastering the art of public-record requests: Know the law (and cite it!), don’t always rely on email, look for alternative ways to get elusive information, and reach out for legal reinforcements when needed.

Adam Marshall, a senior staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, advised journalists to not only understand public records law but to remind government agencies of it in your public record requests. “There’s actually empirical research that shows that if you state a statutory provision, you will actually get a better response from the government,” he said.

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