Lesson 13. Information Resources: Public Records

KEY CONCEPTS

  • Public records are created by public-sector institutions funded by public monies.
  • Public sector institutions generate abundant information about themselves and their activities.
  • Public sector institutions collect, generate and/or make available information about many other organizations, institutions and individuals in the private sector.
  • Information from public sector institutions is deemed publicly available by law in most circumstances, and the people who work for those institutions are public servants obligated to provide information to those who request it.

LEARNING OUTCOMES

After completing this lesson you will be able to:

  • understand the information-generation patterns of public-sector institutions.
  • apply appropriate methods and tools in locating public records of all sorts.
  • think critically and creatively about agencies or government sectors likely to generate certain kinds of information.
  • evaluate the information found in public records.

Overview

  • Did the truck driver that caused the 10 car pile-up have a clean driving record?
  • Has he been convicted of drunk driving in the past?
  • Are there any issues with the company that he works for?
  • Who is the owner of the car with license plate XXX*** that was part of the pile-up?
  • What about the truck – have there been any recalls of that vehicle that might indicate safety problems?
  • How many multi-car accidents are there in a year?
  • What’s the incident level for this stretch of the highway where it happened?
  • What about the hospital where the victims were taken – have there been any complaints or issues with their emergency room?

Every one of these questions can be answered with information found in public records generated by public sector institutions. These are the kinds of questions that might be asked, and need to be answered, depending on the coverage a journalist might undertake.

In the strategic communications context, there is a need to do due diligence on new clients. For example, if a chain of nursing homes wants your agency to help them with a new advertising campaign you would want to check public records to discover if there have been any issues with regulators you should be aware of. Has the chain of nursing homes been fined for safety violations? Have the health providers been sanctioned or have any of them lost their licenses? If the chain is a publicly-held company, what is the financial health of the company — can they pay your fee? Public records can help background an issue for the public relations professional helping a client deal with crisis communications.

Minnesota defines public records as “all data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by any government entity regardless of its physical form, storage media or conditions of use.”

As you can imagine, the types of data collected by any individual agency in the conducting of its public work is overwhelming to think about. The challenge for researchers when using public records to fulfill information tasks is locating the likely local / state / federal agencies that would oversee or conduct business related to the topic being covered.