Skip to main content

Our pledge: Pursue New York public records relevant to readers' well-being


Show Caption

Happy New Year! Welcome to what we're declaring to be the Year of Government Transparency in New York state.

Reporters across our USA TODAY Network sites upstate and downstate are committing in 2022 to pursue government records relevant to the public's health and welfare.

We will publish new searchable databases of these records and write more stories holding our leaders and institutions accountable for how well or poorly they are serving New Yorkers.

Perhaps most important, we seek to empower citizens to learn about the impact of government actions on their communities and to make their own inquiries for public records.

In such challenging times, we believe firmly that knowledge is empowering and that civic progress comes from members of the public examining facts and data in order to set a better course on pressing matters ranging from public health to neighborhood safety.

Police disciplinary database serves as a model for 2022's efforts

Just about one month ago, all of the USA TODAY Network news sites in New York state posted a searchable database of police disciplinary records.

More: How to search our database for Rochester-area police misconduct records

To say these records are of great public interest is an understatement. Within just over a week, the database had been flooded with searchers making a total of 100,000 views of the documents we've been collecting. As we continue to fight for more such records, we fully expect the audience for this information to grow further.

Out of the team effort to create the police disciplinary database and publish a few dozen related stories this past year comes our broader effort to promote government transparency. We now have a playbook, and it works:

  • Identify records of public interest and impact.
  • Make scores or even hundreds of Freedom of Information Law requests.
  • Create a searchable database for public use once a critical mass of records have been obtained.
  • Promote the database on social media and in news articles.
  • Write compelling and revelatory news stories about our findings from reviewing the records.
  • Generate online conversations with readers who have questions and suggestions or are making their own push for more government transparency.

And that's what you'll see us do, time and again, in 2022 and beyond.

Freedom of Information Law: Back to the future

Our efforts, and your response to them, affirm the fundamental role news organizations are meant to play in the United States. Our efforts are protected by the First Amendment to ensure an independent and free press can hold public leaders and institutions accountable for their actions.

A half-century ago, amid another time period of great change and challenge in American society, so-called "Sunshine Laws" were put into place by states including New York to codify the obligation of state and local governments to make available to the public all sorts of records they create and store.

While there are some limits contained in the law, its purpose was to ensure our leaders couldn't hide documents shedding light on their performance or records relevant to the public's health and welfare. New York even created a Committee on Open Government to provide advice to government leaders, journalists and citizens alike on how the law might apply to certain types of records requests.

Like every reform initiative, it worked well for a while, until it didn't.

There has certainly been slippage over the past 15 years or so in terms of government compliance with Freedom of Information Law requirements. The secrecy seen during the decade of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration embodies this slippage.

Making matters worse, the rise of digital technology and changing audience behavior has disrupted the revenue model for local news, reducing substantially the number of local news reporters who might make requests for public records.

Unfortunately, there are far too many public records that have sat unrevealed for far too long in the offices of village, town, city, county and state governments. In 2022, we take every step we can to bring as many of these records as possible into the light.

Thankfully, it's become evident, as with the police disciplinary database and news coverage, that readers truly crave such reporting.

Which records are of most value to the public?

So which records might we pursue in 2022?

Well, we've learned over the past 22 months that COVID-19 has worsened existing inequities and thrown systemic deficiencies into stark relief. This is particularly true in the arena of public health, where great distrust of the medical community exists in urban communities and rural towns alike.

More: In a Rust Belt city split by inequality, people are battling for health care justice. The fight for change is a fight for their lives.

More: Ideas on the future of policing in the U.S.: 'Start asking tough questions'

We've learned since the killing of George Floyd 19 months ago in Minneapolis and amid rising gun violence the past two years that the effectiveness of policing and its impact on communities are truly significant matters of public interest.

We've learned as the real-estate market has transformed markedly during the pandemic that public policy regarding housing is worthy of greater scrutiny, whether it is affecting homebuyers or renters. This is an equity issue as well: How well are housing codes enforced in cities, suburbs and small towns?

And we've learned that consumers of all economic backgrounds face scams that cost them money. How well is state government protecting us from these questionable business practices?

Another matter of concern is what is often called environmental justice. Where are New Yorkers more prone to harm from polluted air or water or toxic waste sites? As severe flooding increases due to climate change, which New Yorkers are most vulnerable and what is being done -- or not being done -- to protect them?

Finally, while most public servants do their jobs commendably and with an eye toward helping local or state residents, it is also true that numerous perks exist regarding pensions and salaries whose generosity might surprise you. We will pay closer attention to these records as well.

We are creating reporting teams around these issues and will be seeking public records from the get-go as the calendar turns to 2022.

No doubt you have your own concerns you'd like to see our reporters pursue. Please share with us your ideas for records searches and stories below.

The next 12 months should be quite a ride. Our journalists will report on community and statewide concerns. They will press our leaders for answers on why unwise or harmful situations and practices have been allowed to develop and persist. And they will seek to shed light on possible reforms and solutions.

This is the type of news reporting that motivates us to be at our best, chiefly because we know we are fighting for you, the reader. 

We are excited about the path ahead. Buckle up!

Michael Kilian is New York State Editor for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected].