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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.
Sunshine Week 2014: Two new studies released
On the eve of Sunshine Week 2014, SPJ released the results from two surveys about journalists experience with obtaining public information. The studies were led by Dr. Carolyn S. Carlson a communication professor from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and a member of SPJs Freedom of Information committee and Megan Roy, Carlsons graduate research assistant.
The surveys specifically document reporters perceptions about whether government press offices interfere with reporting.
The first survey was of political and general assignment reporters working at the state and local level. The vast majority of reporters who took this survey said the amount of control has been increasing over the past several years and they see it only getting worse over the next few years. They agreed the current level of media control by PIOs is an impediment to providing information to the public. Download and read the complete report [PDF, 468 KB] here.
For the second survey, SPJ joined with the Education Writers Association to focus on the nation's education reporters. Journalists indicated that public information officers often require pre-approval for interviews, decide whom reporters get to interview and often monitor interviews. Sometimes they will prohibit interviews altogether. Education writers overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists reporting practices. Download and read the complete report [PDF, 417 KB] here.
Transcripts of remarks from the National Press Clubs When Press Offices Block the Press event [PDF]
– Introduction by Kathryn Foxhall
– Carolyn Carlson
– SPJ President David Cuillier
– Emily Richmond, EWA Public Editor
Sunshine Week Web site
Chapter FOI program ideas
Campus FOI resources
FOI activities for newsrooms
Writing about FOI
Quotable expert sources
FOI studies and reports
Curriculum and classroom ideas for teachers
Sunshine Week Logos
SPJ's Black Hole Award: The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award in order to highlight the most heinous violations of the publics right to know. By exposing examples of unnecessary and harmful secrecy, we hope to educate the public to their rights and hold government accountable. In the past, this award has been given annually. This year, the Freedom of Information committee adapted the rules so that the Black Hole Award is given on an as-needed basis. To view past winners, visit the Black Hole Award web page.
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.