Writing about FOI
If you are writing a news story or editorial about freedom of information for Sunshine Week or any other time, we have some ideas to help your writing and presentations resonate with readers and viewers.
SPJ's Black Hole Award: The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award this year to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing examples of unnecessary and harmful secrecy, we hope to educate the public to their rights and hold government accountable. The Freedom of Information Committee accepted nominations for 2010 violations, coordinated by committee member Mike Farrell of the University of Kentucky, and selected the winner along with five runners-up. This award will be handed out annually during national Sunshine Week. Click here to read about this year's winner and the five runners-up.
Reporters Guide to FERPA: Navigating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act: Ever have a tough time getting public records from schools or universities? We feel your pain and are here to help you. The federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act has been twisted beyond recognition, keeping school lunch menus, graduation honors and athletic travel records secret. Take back your right to information with this guide, produced by the Society of Professional Journalists in conjunction with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Tips for hitting home
Here are some tips for making FOI relevant to citizens and going beyond the typical journalist vs. government story:
Tell people where the information came from. Tell them what records are available and provide information to let them know how they can get the information themselves.
Acquire copies of the documents and post them online so people can see the information for themselves.
Figure out what citizens are affected by the secrecy and talk to them. Humanize the story. Make it real.
Find allies who would support open records, such as Realtors, companies, contractors, genealogists, librarians, neighborhood activists and even public officials who want the information.
Research has shown that citizens are supportive of FOI when it has a public purpose. If that public value is not apparent, then citizens often oppose journalists access to the records and it can lead to backlash. Make it clear why the information is important to the public.
Quote access experts (see below) to provide views contrary to what the government officials say. Maybe you cant call secret officials on the carpet, but access advocates can.
Citizens are most opposed to journalists accessing privacy-oriented records, such as divorce files, concealed weapons permits and government salary information. They are most supportive of access to public safety records, such as criminal documents and dangers in the community.
Avoid publishing documents or data just because you have them. Make sure there is a public purpose or citizens will rebel and call for their closure, particularly if there is a privacy issue involved. For example, requesting student directory home address information of all students in your local public schools (to reach parents in case of a school shooting), or posting online the addresses of people who have concealed weapons will likely result in public cries of privacy invasion.
Compare your laws to other states
Often officials propose or defend access laws they claim are the best in the nation. Or someone will claim a state is more secret than other states. Dont take their word for it compare. Two sites provide the opportunity to give context and perspective. You can go to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Open Government Guide and compare how different states handle a particular open-records or meetings issue, or compare state openness by category at the Citizen Access Project. Also, two studies have ranked the state public records laws by their degree of openness. Check out the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2002 study and the National Freedom of Information Coalition 2007 study.
Quote FOI experts
Need someone to quote on deadline who can speak to the importance of FOI? Check out these expert sources who are more than happy to provide their perspectives and speak up for open government.
FOI studies and reports
Looking for some solid research and studies to provide facts and depth for your FOI coverage? Check out these scientific studies that offer understanding and empirical data.