FOI and Daily News Coverage
Why this report was prepared
The ‘Open Doors’ Survey
Variable factors play a large role
‘What this Survey Means,’ by Ian Marquand
An SPJ Research Report: FOI and Daily News Coverage
An article about botched murder cases.
A story about unsafe food plaguing the country’s schools.
Just two examples illustrating the role public records, court records and public meetings play in providing readers, viewers and listeners with information they deserve to know. Whether the coverage centers on the war in Afghanistan or a local school board meeting, access to public information is one of the most important tools available to journalists.
However, while public records, meetings and proceedings play an important role in the journalism profession, media outlets call attention to that role relatively infrequently.
Why this report was prepared
Freedom of Information is one of SPJ’s core missions. In fact, protecting the rights of public access to public information is written into the Society’s Code of Ethics under the heading “Seek Truth and Report It”:
“Journalists should recognize a general obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”
The news media is one of the foremost agents for government openness in American
society. News organizations that are denied information they believe should
be public are not afraid to file lawsuits or use other legal tools to force
the release of that information. News organizations also have gone to court
to protect their ability to publish information they already have – information
that government officials may want to remain secret.
In addition, individual media outlets – primarily newspapers and state Associated Press bureaus – have gone further and conducted highly-organized, short-term, FOI projects in recent years. Usually, the goal of these projects is to demonstrate how well (or how poorly) state access laws are obeyed and implemented in state or local government offices.
In 1997, SPJ was a leader in the nation’s first “public records audit” in Indiana. Since that time, media coalitions, good government groups, institutions of higher learning and public agencies in more than a dozen states have conducted their own public records audits.
The surveys were conducted in a low-profile manner, but the results were very high-profile. In each case, the surveyors published the results and, in each case, those reports showed poor compliance with access laws. Some of those audits (including the first one in Indiana) have led to positive changes in state laws and the creation of state agencies charged especially with helping citizens gain access to public information.
The “Open Doors” Survey
In conjunction with the “Open Doors” FOI project funded by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, SPJ chose to focus on a different aspect of FOI laws and the media. Namely:
How often the media make use of public access information in
their day-to-day reporting of news.
How visible that use is to the news consumer.
During the month of December 2001, the Society of Professional Journalists
chose to take a month-long snapshot of the role public access plays in daily
SPJ examined more than 4,000 individual news stories in 20 different media outlets during the month. The news outlets were chosen to reflect a diversity of geographic location and circulation/market size. Some (like the major television networks or NPR in broadcasting, or the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) were chosen because of their prominence. Others were chosen because they had come to SPJ’s attention in some way. Some were chosen more or less at random to represent a geographic area of the United States.
SPJ studied the following media outlets:
ABC World News Tonight
CBS Evening News
KGUN-TV (Tucson, Ariz.)
KRON-TV (San Francisco, Calif.)
NBC Nightly News
PBS – The News Hour with Jim Lehrer
WNDU-TV (South Bend, Ind.)
WRDW-TV (North Augusta, S.C.)
National Public Radio
The Denver Post
The Eagle-Tribune (Lawrence, Mass.)
Great Falls Tribune (Montana)
The Indianapolis Star
Los Angeles Times
The Miami Herald
The (Nashville) Tennessean
The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)
The Union (Grass Valley, Calif.)
The Wichita Eagle
None of the media surveyed was contacted in advance. For 31 days, the primary
online news pages or homepages of the 20 media outlets were analyzed for use
of public records, public meetings and court records. The daily news product
of some outlets – primarily newspapers – was examined physically;
i.e. the researcher read the paper, focusing on the most visible parts –
the front pages of the “A” and “B” sections. (In broadcast
news, the equivalent would be the first and second segments of a typical 30-minute
In most cases, the researcher examined the stories posted on the outlet’s homepage on the Internet. Web sites were monitored at the same time each day for consistency. In each case, articles based on – or utilizing – public information were recorded daily, whether they were examined on paper or via the Internet.
A count was made of all stories examined. Stories that clearly were based on access to public records, meetings or proceedings also were recorded in the following categories:
Court records or proceedings
It’s important to note that this survey did not give added weight to
stories based on how the public information was acquired. Some stories may have
required exhaustive use of public records over a long period of time, while
others simply required attendance at a public meeting or the examination of
a routinely available record at a government office. As a result, for this survey,
a major “Page A-1” investigative story was given the same weight
as a “Page B-1” story on a routine court filing or city council
In the course of the month, a total of 4,445 articles and stories were analyzed. The following table shows the collective totals and provides an aggregate look at how often public information was used in daily news coverage:
|% OF TOTAL||BROADCAST||% OF TOTAL|
|Stories with Public Records||610||19%||143||11%|
|Stories with Public Meetings||75||2%||14||1%|
|Stories with Court Proceedings||246||8%||66||5%|
Taken at face value by themselves, the aggregate numbers appear to show the following:
Print media make use of public records or open meetings almost
twice as often as broadcast media.
While access to public information plays a significant role in
news-gathering, especially in print media, it does not appear to
play a dominant role.
Variable factors play a large role
What the aggregates do not reflect is the reality of the working newsroom and the variety of news available to news outlets every day. A newspaper or broadcast outlet may cover many stories on a given day that are important to its readers, viewers or listeners, yet may not require public records, meetings or proceedings.
Spot news, features, business news, interviews, announcements, press conferences, events –all may be newsworthy and all may receive “front page” treatment on a given day. Additionally, stories on government activities may not be based on access to records or meetings. They might be based on personal interviews or public events –like press conferences – not considered “public meetings” of government bodies.
While the number of public access-related articles tended to be inconsistent day-to-day, over the course of the month surveyed, the 20 outlets used public records consistently. Certain trends or tendencies in the use of public information also emerged:
Large and mid-size media tended to have much higher percentages
of public access-based stories than did the smaller media
Newspapers and broadcast media in smaller markets were
inclined to use public meeting access much more frequently than
the ones in the larger markets.
Only in rare cases did a media outlet acknowledge that
information came from public records, meetings or proceedings.
Editorial approaches and decisions in individual newsrooms also may influence
how frequently public access plays a role in news coverage.
As was suspected, the homepage/primary news page of the larger/mid-size papers published a mixture of local, state, and national news resulting in public access percentages as high as 88 percent on a given day. Smaller newspaper and broadcast media focused primarily on community news, which resulted in a much lower percentage – at times as low as zero percent – which skewed the combined total downward. In addition, several media Web sites were not updated on a daily basis, which also distorted the results.
The aggregate numbers also mask the importance of public records to individual stories by individual media outlets. Some stories based on public information were prominently featured in a particular day’s coverage. For instance, the Chicago Tribune published two in-depth investigative reports during the month with public records foundations.
A three-day series began on Dec. 9 investigating school lunch safety. The series followed the beef trail across the country requiring the journalists to use public records to track down health citations, numbers of students stricken, types of illnesses contracted, amounts of beef supplied, and total profits made by vendors. The series began with a national focus, ending with the spotlight on the local fallout with “Schools Flunk Food Safety, one in four city schools cited for rodent infestation in food storage areas.”
One week later, the Tribune published a four-part series examining murder cases filed in Cook County since 1991. Through intensive investigation, the journalists pinpointed at least 247 cases where police obtained incriminating statements that failed to secure a conviction or were disallowed by the court. The series described how police in Chicago and Cook County repeatedly closed murder cases using dubious confessions, substituting interrogation for thorough investigation. As a result, said the story, innocent people went to prison while killers went free.
Other news outlets used other kinds of public records to present news to their audiences. Those records included:
School testing data
School report cards
2000 census data
A search of a public records database
In addition, the media surveyed for this report were outlets for several high-profile national stories that involved public records or proceedings, including the war on terrorism, the military campaign in Afghanistan, the Enron debacle and other national business stories, the Bush administration’s intention to pull back from the ABM treaty and Congressional proceedings on issues like education reform and the Aviation Security Act.
In summary, the one-month survey of these news outlets showed that while public records or proceedings do not make headlines every day, the use of public access information by American news media is fairly routine. However, because news outlets make decisions based on the type of news that occurs day-to-day, the frequency in which public access-related stories appear varies, both day-to-day and outlet-to-outlet.
In exceptional cases – in which the gathering of the information was part of the story – news outlets acknowledged the role of public information. Otherwise, the role of public access to records, meetings or proceedings was omitted from news reports.
What this Survey Means
This survey was never intended to be the final word on the importance of Freedom of Information to news-gathering in America. But it was intended to address a belief that most, if not all, of us in journalism hold: that access to public records and meetings is a major pillar on which our news coverage is based.
There’s no question that journalists believe in FOI. We might attend conferences or seminars on FOI. The companies we work for might make financial contributions to local or state FOI coalitions or legal hotlines or other organizations dedicated to keeping public information public. We might become involved – as individuals or members of an organization – in lawsuits to force open the doors and file cabinets of government.
SPJ and other organizations make information available to journalists about access laws and how to use them. We pass along information on FOI developments, both positive and negative. We try to alert people about threats to access; we try to herald improvements.
All told, we do a pretty good job of preaching to the choir. The question is, do we reach the masses?
When I read my daily newspaper, I note stories that obviously are based on public records or government proceedings. On some days, it seems that virtually all of Page One has a foundation in public information. I’ve had conversations with associates in which they express the same experience.
I’m especially pleased when I see a story that clearly states that the information came from those sources. However, in all honesty, those occasions are the exception, rather than the rule.
I believe that while we in journalism hold public access as a sacred concept, we do a lackluster job of conveying that to our readers, listeners and viewers.
What we’ve tried to do through this survey is provide a snapshot (albeit a longer-term snapshot) of the role public records and public proceedings play in daily news coverage. Admittedly, because of the timeline of this project, we had to act relatively quickly. As a result, we kept the survey relatively simple so it could go from initial design to finished report in a relatively short period. So, what do the results show?
First, that news-gathering in America is based on more than just public access to information. For every issue of the newspaper that contains multiple stories with FOI angles, there’s another in which the news simply came from somewhere else. For every broadcast of our network or local television news that shows video of public meetings or proceedings, there’s another where the video came from very different sources.
Second, that public records and meetings (including court proceedings) do make news on a regular basis. So, even though we can’t predict from where news will come on a given day, we know that a certain portion of it will come from publicly available records and gatherings. In the case of this survey, one in every five newspaper stories-and one in 10 broad cast stories-had a public access angle. Assuming that the average news paper front page has five stories, there’s a good chance that one of them has a foundation in public access. Assuming, also, that a typical television news broadcast has ten core stories, one of them will be grounded in public records or meetings. That’s not insignificant.
Third, news outlets take public access for granted in their reporting. Only in rare cases did SPJ find a news outlet that clearly stated that the information was taken from public records or came out of a public meeting.
A note about the survey itself: we did not intend to make a comparison of individual
news outlets or to comment on the quantity or quality of their FOI-based reporting.
The media organizations we chose were not singled out for excellence or editorial
approach or ownership or any other special attribute. They were chosen simply
to create a mix of print and broadcast, large and small, east and west, north
Finally, it’s quite possible that you might read the survey and think “we do a better job of it than that.” That might well be true. I encourage you to put that assertion to the test. Look over the last month of your own outlet’s product. See what you find, and talk about the results with your fellow journalists. Better yet, share your findings with your audience and tell them why public access is important.
It’s one of the best public services you can offer.
SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman