13 Public Records

Peter Bobkowski

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Understand what public records are, why they exist, and why they are public.
  • Access and retrieve information from a variety of online public records.
  • Articulate arguments about the credibility cues of public records, and provide evidence in support of these arguments.

All These Directory Websites

Have you ever searched the internet for someone you once knew? Or someone you came across and found interesting? Or yourself? Or one of your relatives?

If you have, chances are that you ended up on a website that claimed to have a ton of information about that person, showed you a tiny preview of this information, and then offered to hand over all of it for something like $7.99, or for a $26.99 monthly subscription. There are dozens of websites that function this way, like WhitePages, Pipl, BeenVerified, Intelius, PeopleFinder, FastPeopleSearch, PeopleSearchNow, TruePeopleSearch, PeopleLooker, TruthFinder, 411, SpyTox, GoLookUp, USSearch, and AnyWho.

Or, have you searched for information on a small company? If you have, you may have come across websites like Bizapedia, Manta, Buzzfile, OpenCorporates, and PropertyShark. Like the people directory sites, these business directory websites preview information about businesses and their owners, and promise more information for a premium.

Why are there so many websites offering, essentially, the same service?

The answer is that these websites use a very simple business model: They find free information, aggregate it, present it in an appealing way, and then sell it. The technical term is “monetizing”: These websites monetize free information. Every day, millions of internet users search for people and businesses, and some of them are willing to pay for the convenience these websites offer. Many users probably don’t know that the information they are buying is available for free.

There are two key sources of this information: Social media and public records. Most of us won’t be surprised that someone is making a buck off the personal information we feed to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

But what are public records? Where do they come from? Why and how do we access these free records? And are they credible? These are the questions this chapter addresses.

What Are Public Records

Public records are produced by government agencies in the course of conducting the business with which these agencies are charged. Laws and regulations require government agencies to collect various pieces of information, or records, about individuals and other entities that are under these agencies’ jurisdictions. Records make governing possible. The government agencies use these records to provide services, administer oversight, forecast trends, determine funding, and perform various other functions.

Think about all of the different records that various government offices have created about you.

Most of us have birth certificates, visas, or naturalization documents that designate our resident status in this country. Those of us who weren’t born here also have immigration forms that precede these resident documents. We have Social Security numbers and related files that document our age, Social Security contributions, and when we will be eligible to be paid back from this system.

If we drive and own a car, there are records about our driving proficiency tests, licenses, our cars’ registrations, and the taxes we pay on them. Every time we return from a trip to another country, we complete customs forms indicating our whereabouts and what we are bringing back.

If we sought federal student loans, the Department of Education has those applications and follow-up documents. If we happen to be licensed as teachers, cosmetologists, pilots, or other professionals, there are records of these licenses and when they are up for expiration or renewal.

Every year, we fill out and submit tax records, and every 10 years the Census Bureau collects information about where we live and what we do. All of this information assists government agencies to make our society function properly.

Each of these records helps a government agency fulfill some kind of a function. For example, without census records, election commissions and legislatures would not know how to reapportion representation on local, state, and federal governing bodies, to reflect population changes. Without property records, counties and school districts would not know how much money to expect every year from property taxes. Without driver’s license records, motor vehicles departments would not be able to ensure that all drivers have basic knowledge of traffic safety.

Many of these records are not public. For example, the public does not have access to individual driver’s license records. Other records are embargoed for some time, that is, they are not made public right away. Census records, for example, are released 72 years after a census is taken. This means that the 1950 census records will be made available to the public in 2022.

Why Are Public Records Public

Many public records are public. By virtue of living in a transparent democratic society, we have the right to see how our governments conduct their business. Public records are an important element of keeping our governments transparent and accountable. Property tax records, for example, allow us to determine whether property owners are being taxed even-handedly.

Another reason for keeping public records open to the public is that many of these records are available for our benefit. Voter registrations, for example, tell us where and when we can participate in the next election, while food safety inspection records tell us whether our favorite restaurants are keeping their kitchens clean. In short, public records are open to keep government agencies accountable and to help us effectively function as members of society.

So, what records are public? One way to understand the scope of what’s available to the public is to look at retention schedules, which are lists of government agency records that specify for how long these agencies are required to keep their records. The Kansas Historical Society maintains a list of these retention schedules for the state. The National Archives maintains lists of records control schedules for all branches of the federal government. These lists contain thousands of record types. Most of these records are available by request from the agencies that maintain them, under state and federal open records laws, which govern the public’s access to these records.

But an increasing number of public records are available on the internet, through the websites of the various government agencies that create and update these records. This chapter contains several videos on how to access and interpret some of these records.

Why Look for Public Records

Journalists and strategic communication practitioners may be tasked regularly with finding information about individuals and entities. Journalists often need to search for information about individuals or businesses that are the subjects of news stories. Strategic communications practitioners may have to find information about individuals or businesses that are potential clients or competitors of their clients.

Some information like this is aggregated on commercial directory websites such as Pipl or Manta that come up high in Google results. In our experience, while these websites provide some accurate information, oftentimes this information is not complete, or no longer accurate. Think back to our discussions of primary and secondary sources in the chapters on evaluating credibility and attribution. Much of the information in directory sites comes from public records, that is, public records are the primary sources of this information. This means that it’s incumbent on communication professionals to find and verify information on these websites in public records, where this information originates.

How to Access Public Records

Public records generally are not searchable from Google. This means that to access them, we first have to figure out which agency produces the record in which we are interested. Second, we have to find our way to that agency’s website. Finally, we have to learn how to operate the agency’s online database.

This section contains links to six videos on searching public records, and links to several other records without instructional videos. The first two videos focus on searching information about non-human entities. The other four videos focus on searching information about individuals.

Records about entities

Business Entity Records

Food Safety Inspection Records

Additional links to public records about entities:

Peer Tutorials: Public Records about Entities in Kansas

In the next video, Liam Erst (JOUR 302, spring 2019) demonstrates how to search for business records in Kansas.

In the following video, Stephanie Morales (JOUR 302, spring 2019) demonstrates how to search for cosmetology establishment licenses in Kansas.

Peer Tutorials: Public Records about Entities in Different States

In the following video, Madison Taylor (JOUR 302, spring 2020) demonstrates how to access food inspection records in Arkansas.

In the next video below, Emily Lasky (JOUR 302, fall 2019) shows how to find liquor licenses in the state of Illinois.

In the next video, Emilie Faust (JOUR 302, spring 2020) explains how to search for business licenses in the Nebraska Secretary of State database.

In this final video, Kristin Kaipust (JOUR 302, spring 2020) explains how to look up food safety inspections in Nebraska.

In the following video, Jessica Rakow (JOUR 302, spring 2020) shows how to check an establishment’s liquor license in New York State.

In the video below, Anna Denison (JOUR 302, spring 2020) explains how to search for business entity records in Oklahoma.

Records about individuals

Current Property Records

Historical Property Records

Voter Registrations

Corrections Records

Links to additional online public records about individuals:

Peer Tutorials: Public Records about Individuals

In the video below, Heidi March (JOUR 302, spring 2020) demonstrates how to search the KBI sex offender database.

In another video, Heidi March (JOUR 302, spring 2020) shows how to find and access district court records in Johnson County, Kansas.

In the following video, Anna Bohlmann (JOUR 302, spring 2020) shows how to access medical and dental license records in Kansas.

In the next video, Nicole Grazier and Bailey Cook (JOUR 302, spring 2020) demonstrate how to look up educator licenses in Kansas.

How Credible Are Public Records?

Public records are the official, primary sources of the information they contain. Government records generally do not cite other sources, so whenever a journalist cites a public record, the journalist is in the desired position of serving as a second source of information.

While a personal directory website might list University of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self’s address, such a website also is a secondary source of this information. The primary source for Bill Self’s address is the Douglas County property record that shows what property or properties Bill Self owns in the county. Another primary record is in the Kansas Business Entity database, showing the address where Bill Self’s businesses are registered.

Records created and maintained by government agencies need to be accurate. Otherwise, the government will not function properly. To ensure the accuracy of records, these records are created as part of some process, with a specific set of requirements needing to be met for the record to be issued.

For example, a renewal driver’s license in Kansas can be issued only when eight requirements are met: an individual presents his or her expiring license, another ID showing Kansas residency, and an ID showing his or her Social Security number, plus the individual needs to pass a vision exam, pay the renewal fee, get a new photo taken, provide a signature, and do all this in person at a motor vehicles division office.

In other words, the accuracy of public records is safeguarded by the processes required for their creation.

Moreover, it generally is illegal to create false government information. For example, in submitting an annual report about a company operating in the state of Kansas, which constitutes the public record of this company’s existence, an agent of this company (that is, its owner or representative), has to sign their name above a line that says, “I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of Kansas that the foregoing is true and correct.” The public agent has a strong incentive to create a truthful public record, thus avoiding legal trouble.

Public records oftentimes constitute the authoritative documentation of something happening. Government agencies have an interest in keeping track of information that otherwise would not be recorded, or not recorded in a centralized place.

For instance, if a county register did not keep records of properties being bought and sold in a county, it would be difficult to figure out who owns a property, who sold it, and whether anyone owes any money on the property. Banks that lend money for property purchases would have some records of these transactions, real estate agents would have some records of the sales they facilitated, and individual owners would have other records. Each of these parties would have only the information in which they were interested, and the length of time they kept this information would be unpredictable.

A county register’s office, in contrast, has a standardized way of recording and retaining records of property sales so that these records are easily searchable and referenced when the information they contain is needed. For this reason, the county register’s records are the authoritative records of the properties owned, bought, and sold in the county.

Of course, some public records contain errors because clerical mistakes happen. But for the most part, we put considerable faith in the accuracy of public records. These two qualities — the authority and accuracy of public records — combine to make public records some of the most credible sources of information we discuss in this book.

A Practitioner’s View

Katie Bernard

B.S., KU Journalism, 2019

Breaking News & Crime Reporter

The Kansas City Star

Most of my job would be very hard to do without public records. I look up court records every day. I use PACER, looking for what’s been filed. Usually, when there is a homicide or a crime of interest, we end up requesting a police report on it. Questions will come up in our reporting and the easiest way to answer them is to request some sort of policy or emails from some public agency.

I spent most of last fall [2019] working on a series of stories about the way rape was investigated in Lawrence. It started when we got a tip that a young woman had been charged with making a false report of rape. As we covered that case, we kept learning more, which led to a separate story about another woman who had a very horrific experience with the university processes, the district attorney’s office and police. After the story published, I’ve covered stories on efforts to improve the situation.

We wouldn’t have uncovered that second story if we didn’t have access to public records. I was reading through court transcripts and filings to understand the facts behind the original case, because the woman being charged with making a false report wasn’t the story. It was how police treated her prior to charging her. Through a series of court requests, I learned that two other women had been charged with making false reports. I also got data on how often the Douglas County District Attorney was charging people on false reports and sex crimes and how many sex crimes calls the Lawrence Police Department got in a year. I got that either with a records request to the court, or a KORA request to the police department or DA’s office.

Public records can’t on their own be a story often. Sometimes they can be, but they can help answer questions that you naturally come by on reporting, and they often can shed light on what’s going on within our government.

Activity 1: A Classmate’s Public Records

Conduct a short interview with a classmate, recording the student’s basic demographic information (e.g., name, hometown, etc.). Use a combination of Google searches and public records searches to identify as many public records as possible about this classmate and the classmate’s family.

Activity 2: Local Business Public Records

Identify a local business to which you do not have any personal connection (e.g., store, restaurant, bar, apartment, gas station, etc.). Identify the address of this business. Use a combination of Google searches and public records searches to identify as many public records as possible about this business, its owners, and the property where this business operates.

Activity 3: Open Pedagogy

Create a tutorial for accessing a public record that isn’t covered in this chapter. Use a format that you learn from best, like a short video or a narrated slideshow.

License

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Be Credible by Peter Bobkowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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