Dan Corkery: Get the picture: Are restaurants displaying placards?
If you go out to a restaurant in Champaign-Urbana this week, please look for a green placard near the entrance.
It should be easy to find.
And when you see the placard, can you take a picture of it? Our friends at CU-CitizenAccess.org would like to share your photo.
Under a new Champaign-Urbana Public Health District ordinance, all food service establishments and retail food stores must display a color-coded placard that shows how well that business did in its last health inspection.
According to the public health district's food safety ordinance, green indicates "satisfactory compliance." Yellow, "re-inspection required" (more on that). And red means "closure" — and not the good kind of closure.
Regular readers of The News-Gazette may be familiar with the restaurant-inspection stories authored by CU-CitizenAccess.org. Those stories, which have been appearing on our news pages since September 2011, have helped to usher in the new local rules that require local restaurants to post their inspection score.
So why take pictures?
Follow-up, says Brant Houston, journalism professor at the University of Illinois and one of the originators of CU-CitizenAccess.org.
"We started with a public-affairs reporting class to see how restaurants were transitioning to the placard system," Houston said. "In some cases, they were very hard to find. At one restaurant, a staff member went to the back room to find the placard."
The idea is, if the public seeks out the placards, restaurants will comply.
That Champaign-Urbana is just now displaying its restaurant inspections is astonishing to Houston. The veteran journalist, who was a reporter in Kansas City and Hartford, Conn., said most communities provide easy access to inspection reports. When he came to the UI in 2007, he had his reporting class do a "typical" public-records assignment: restaurant inspections.
But he and his students learned the local health district did not make them publicly available. They had to file a Freedom of Information request.
To this day, CU-CitizenAccess.org must file a FOIA each month to update this ongoing story.
Full disclosure: The Marajen Stevick Foundation, the owner of The News-Gazette, has been one of the principal benefactors of CU-CitizensAccess.org, which serves as a newsroom and training laboratory for the UI journalism department.
Citizen journalists: Please email your photos (one of the placard, one of the restaurant) to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, name and address of the restaurant, and date taken.
Dan Corkery, managing editor for administration, is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is email@example.com.