Two prominent journalism organizations rebuked the Communication and Journalism Department’s response to a Daily Lobo record request via the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA.)
The two statements — one from the New Mexico Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the other from Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — came after Department Chair David Weiss said he was “disturbed” by what he said was the “use/misuse/abuse of IPRA” by the Daily Lobo in emails exchanged within the department. Those emails were obtained by the Daily Lobo via a records request.
The Daily Lobo requested documents associated with the department’s student grievance procedure in October 2019.
“It’s disturbing that the people who should be teaching the next generation of journalists about courage and resourcefulness say that using one of the best tools we have to get at the truth is ‘abuse and overuse',” wrote President of NAHJ and a Colorado Public Radio reporter and host May Ortega-Whitehouse in a statement.
Journalist Karen Coates, president of SPJ Rio Grande said in a statement, “SPJ Rio Grande fully supports the rights of all journalists to report on public information and pursue access to public records — period.”
Weiss expressed his concern in a November 2019 email to the Student Publications Board about receiving three requests from the Daily Lobo this year. The UNM IPRA office has handled 819 requests at the time of publication.
“To be blunt, my journalism faculty colleagues and I — and I suspect — faculty and staff members in a variety of units around campus — are rather alarmed by students’ frequent use/misuse/abuse of IPRA; namely its use as a first step in researching or reporting on a story, rather than being used only after interviewing sources,” Weiss wrote.
Weiss’ response comes after UNM has received criticism from New Mexico’s Attorney General office for allegedly ignoring Open Meeting Act requirements. UNM has also been sued multiple times for allegedly failing to comply with IPRA.
Weiss added that instructors in the Communication and Journalism department teach students to contact sources before using IPRA and it’s national counterpart, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He said those procedures should be used only when necessary.
“But I know that not all (Daily) Lobo reporters are journalism majors,” Weiss wrote in the email to the Publications board.
IPRA and FOIA allow anyone to request public documents created by public institutions, including UNM. The purpose of IPRA is “to inspect and copy public records affords members of the public the opportunity to keep a watchful eye on government,” according to the New Mexico Attorney General’s IPRA compliance guide.
“I can only talk about myself here,” Weiss said in an interview with the Daily Lobo. "When I get an IPRA request it just kind of pisses me off. I kinda feel like I’m being hauled into court by lawyers or by the cops or something because I am being compelled to comply.”
Ultimately, Weiss said IPRA leaves a bad impression on potential sources and can sour journalist and source relationships.
Despite the criticism, Weiss, a professor of communications, said many of his journalism colleagues feel similar to him.
Michael Marcotte, the department's only professor of practice, said in an email he sees the ideal use of IPRA as a second attempt to access documents.
“Usually asking is the simplest way to get the records, and, again, the presumption is that you are welcome to them. (Journalism faculty at UNM) also say, have your IPRA request in your hip pocket should your request be met with anything other than timely action,” Marcotte said in an email.
He added that his students often return from assignments and say they had a hard time getting access to UNM officials.
Gwyneth Doland Parker, another journalism instructor, told the Daily Lobo it’s better to ask for the documents first as well.
“It’s important to remember that folks who work in government are people just like us, and they have important jobs to do, too. IPRA shouldn’t be used as a weapon or as a substitute for shoe-leather reporting,” Doland Parker said.
Journalism Instructor Kate Cunningham did not respond to an email request for comment before this story was published.
In a separate email exchange to Doland Parker and Melanie Majors, Weiss discussed the possibility of hosting an “IPRA training” for faculty, staff and students. However, that idea was met with fear.
“She also told me that she fears if we were to put on some sort of presentation about IPRA, that more students/(Daily) Lobo reporters would use it,” Weiss wrote to Doland Parker and Majors. It’s unclear if “she” is Associate Dean Diane Marshall or UNM lawyer Katherine Miefert. That paragraph was redacted through the IPRA process.
In the fall 2019 semester, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the Communications and Journalism Department would allow it’s journalism accreditation to end. Weiss said at the time being New Mexico’s only accredited Journalism program was not worth the $35,000 price tag. He called accreditation “smoke and mirrors” and said he wasn’t sure if anyone cared about it.
Editor’s note: The Daily Lobo does not have a specific policy regarding document requests. Informally, the current editorial board believes that requests should be made quickly, legally and as often as possible. The editorial board believes that collecting a wide range of documents is key to a robust news organization.
Justin Garcia is the Editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @Just516garc