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Current Issue | Browse Archive | About Quill | Advertising Info
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Friday, June 20, 2014
FOI Toolbox

Information pushing vs. information gathering

By Linda Petersen

According to at least one study, Facebook is dying. Princeton researchers John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler claim that Facebook will lose 80 percent of its users in the next three years.

So what? At the least, it’s an indication that the tools we use to communicate within our society are constantly evolving and, in this digital age, at a dizzying rate. Most of us can’t keep up. Even 20-somethings are being left in the dust by their younger siblings who utilize Instagram, Snapchat and the newest/latest/greatest just to electronically hang with friends.

But somehow too many journalists haven’t gotten the memo. Classes on Facebook, Twitter — social media in general — are standing-room only in ballrooms that seat 200 people at conferences such as SPJ’s. Yet almost as soon as attendees leave those classes, the information they receive is on its way to obsolescence.

So why are we spending such a disproportionate amount of time and energy on tools to push out information? In the meantime, how are our information-gathering skills doing? Are they as strong, as sharp as our Facebook or Twitter skills?

Because bottom line: Journalists are only as good as the information we have to deliver, the stories we have to tell.

And how do we tell them? For most of us, that means hard slogging: attending many boring meetings, reading many boring crime reports, wading through many government records — all to get at the truth.

There are some great tools for that out there: computer- assisted and database reporting, etc. But mostly, there are no Facebook-equivalent shortcuts. But the thing is, if there’s no information to deliver, it doesn’t matter how cool the delivery method is or how savvy we are about it.

So, that leads me to ask: How are your information-gathering skills? Where do you go to gather? (Hint: It’s probably not Google.)

Most reporters have to interact with government at some point, whether it’s covering the NSA (good luck) or dealing with your local police department.

Do you even know how to ask for government information? (Hint: A lot of the time they won’t want to give it to you.)

“Well, go to the public information officer,” you say. It’s a place to start, and you might get lucky, but odds are you won’t.

Recent studies by FOI Committee member and past national president Carolyn Carlson show that the vast majority of political and general assignment reporters at all levels surveyed said the amount of control public information officers are exercising over the reporting process has been increasing over the past several years, and they see it only getting worse over the next few years.

(Latest report here)

It’s a function of a PIO’s job to manage you, not to give you free access to whatever you want to look at or to do your job for you. And often it’s in those places where the real stories lie.

Government records, obtained through freedom of information requests, can help you:

FIND GREAT STORIES

Often, it’s the story behind the official line that’s the real story, or at least the more interesting story. Government records can help you confirm your hunches.

IMPROVE YOUR STORIES

“The devil is in the details” when it comes to government. Public records have many of those details.

VERIFY YOUR FACTS

“Records document the deeds and misdeeds of officials great and small, chronicling the byways of government and memorializing our collective history.” (“The Art of Access” by David Cuillier and Charles N. Davis.)

GET THE BACKGROUND

As important as reporting on what government does is, how government gets there is more important. You can follow the paper trail.

Do you even know how to submit a records request? If not, see SPJ’s online resources guide for proand and studentjournalists. You’ll find a step-by-step process.

If you’re a more seasoned reporter, when’s the last time you made such a request? Too long? Make a habit of doing requests weekly, even if you’re not working a particularly story. You’ll keep your skills sharp and learn something new.

It’s time to spend as much time gathering as we do pushing. Because, in the end, your news director/editor isn’t going to send you out saying, “Go deliver any old story using the most awesome social media tool you know how to use.” In 2014, she/he is still going to say, “Go find me the real story.”

Linda Petersen is managing editor of The Valley Journals, a group of community papers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah. She is president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, the Utah Headliners chapter FOI officer, and national FOI Committee Chairwoman. Email her at linda@valleyjournals.com.

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