Monday, January 09, 2012

TV station goes to the wall in fight for public records

In 2011, a National Freedom of Information Coalition study revealed the public has a growing interest in government transparency, but media companies are shying away from open government lawsuits mostly because carrying these lawsuits forward takes time and money news organizations don't have, reports Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute. Exceptions to this trend matter, though, as Tompkins points out in a case study about TV station WGAL in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which serves a mostly rural area.

News Director Daniel O'Donnell told Tompkins the station has been in a two-year legal battle to retrieve autopsy records about a local college student. When the station asked for the records, the coroner "imposed an old Coroner’s Act statute that said he would not release the cause of death in a case until 30 days after the new year." WGAL appealed the case to the state's open-records office and lost. The Hurst Television Group owns the station and when O'Donnell approached its legal team, they told him to "press on, even though it would be costly and time consuming."

The cause of death has long since been discovered, but the legal battle continues because, as O'Donnell told Tompkins, "We simply cannot allow public officials to dictate the timing of the release of details of something as important as the cause of a person’s death. ... This is purely about legal access to vital and we believe, public, information." He said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. (Read more)

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