The Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) was passed by the state of Utah to regulate government entities as they release or deny information requested of them by the public. Not only may a citizen request records from their city and county officials and members of the state legislature, but they may also request information from a public college like the University of Utah. This process allows the public to view what information the government has been collecting and to hold leaders accountable. GRAMA is an empowering tool available to those who wish to delve into a government’s records and it is especially helpful for journalists.
That is not to say that every GRAMA case successfully retrieves one’s desired information or is quickly resolved after its opening. While government agencies are required to respond to document requests, at most, ten days past their submission, requests are not always fruitful — one might be directed to a different office, an office might notify them of a time extension or their request may be denied outright. The medical records and financial information of citizens are ineligible for release, as are records of sensitive operations that may likely cause damage to a government process or investigation if publicized.
The U appears to show mixed results for its handling of GRAMA requests, according to an investigation by The Daily Utah Chronicle. It generally responds to requests from contractors, public record companies and students in usually about five days, well within the ten-day period. However, journalists — who tend to submit expedited requests that required attention within five days — are often left waiting even longer. While it is understandable why an institution would drag its feet when releasing information to journalists, the delay can be quite frustrating to the latter and damaging to their work.
The frustration of journalists is not the key factor, but the public good that accurate journalism provides is. Missing a deadline in a highly competitive reporting market matters, not just because it might cause writers to lose out on a scoop, but because it hinders the public from learning information about how governmental processes are being run. Hangups throughout a GRAMA request may cause the research for a journalist’s story to be prolonged, and without a thorough release, they may not be privy to information that would help them construct an accurate perspective.
There are many legitimate reasons why requests from journalists may take extra time to fulfill. They may delve deeper than others, requesting material that is unusual or difficult to find. They may also ask for highly controversial information that institutions are unwilling or legally unable to release — at least not until the release would no longer have the potential to impede an investigation. Journalists from around the country were met with this answer when their GRAMA requests swarmed up after the murder of U student Lauren McCluskey.
Alternatively, the university may have an issue on its end. The U has approximately 30 GRAMA cases open at any given time, with each case being addressed within roughly the span of one week. This may result in inconvenient journalistic requests being sidelined. The Chronicle itself has only had slightly over 13% of its cases closed within a five day expedited request. Some of this may be due to some hopeless requests for information that cannot be released, but regardless, there is suspicion around why the university’s own student paper cannot make any headway. Student newspapers, while small and comprised of relatively untrained writers and staff, should not be considered any less worthy or legitimate when it comes to fulfilling journalistic requests.
Regardless of intent, and through a willingness to allow the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the university should hire another staff member to work GRAMA cases to prevent a backlog of requests. While it is important that no one has their case flail in limbo, journalists ask for information on behalf of many more people than just themselves. Journalistic work is a great service to the public and journalists shouldn’t struggle through their cases so much more than friendlier requesters do.