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Freedom may not be cheap for students

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Talk about student debt!

Two Red River College journalism students wanted to know how many children have been injured on City of Winnipeg playgrounds.

They filed a freedom-of-information request, waited the maximum 30 days specified by Manitoba’s legislation, but received no response. So they made a second request, followed up twice during the next 30 days, and heard back on Day 29.

The city wanted more than $26,000 to find and copy the documents they requested.

The students, not surprisingly, declined to mortgage their futures.

Instead, they negotiated with the city to get as much information as possible at no cost. Then they visited playgrounds and interviewed parents whose children had been injured.

The resulting story is one of nine prepared by pairs of Creative Communications second-year journalism majors for the third annual Open Secrets, a freedom-of-information project sponsored by the Free Press.

Public policy reporter Mary Agnes Welch briefed the students on Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, then guided them in filing their requests and researching the stories they dug up. Wendy Sawatzky, the paper’s online content manager, helped them create maps, charts and sidebars for informative and appealing presentations.

Over the three months of the projects, the students learned the value of persistence.

Almost all their requests were answered within 30 days, but many responses did not contain all the information they had requested. So students negotiated with the freedom-of-information co-ordinators in provincial and civic departments. Most of those civil servants were helpful.

For example, several representatives of Manitoba Justice replied to students the day they called. The bureaucrats sorted out the complicated records kept on Winnipeg’s worst auto thieves.

Winnipeg Transit, though, was not so helpful.

Students asked for records on verbal and physical assaults as reported by drivers, specifying that they were not seeking the names of the drivers.

Nonetheless, Transit cited privacy concerns in responding that meaningful information had to be severed from the record, making the remaining information meaningless.

So the students hit the streets, interviewing drivers and promising them confidentiality.

Drivers recounted some hair-raising experiences.

The end results of the students’ project: nine packages of revealing stories – and no damage to their bank accounts.

Duncan McMonagle is journalism instructor at RRC.

dmcmonagle@rrc.mb.ca

Twitter @dmcmonagle

 

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