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SPJ Region 1 COVID-19 impact on access to public information survey results


Carolyn James, FOI Chair for Press Club of Long Island, 317-927-8000, communications@spj.org
Ashlynn Neumeyer, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-361-4133, aneumeyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — As we are nearing a close to Sunshine Week, a recent Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 survey of working journalists has shown the impact of the pandemic on government access to public documents and news reporting.

"The results are not surprising for any working journalist who has had to navigate through this pandemic, but they do sound a call to arms in terms of maintaining vigilance and finding alternative ways of gathering news and information,” Freedom of Information Chair for Press Club of Long Island Carolyn James said. “And, while in-person meetings will resume and people will be back at their desks, reporters and news gatherers have a vital responsibility to continue to demand adherence to the laws that have established a clear principle of the public’s right to know."

James, who is also New York State FOI Chair for SPJ, led the project.

SPJ Region 1 consists of journalists in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Central/Eastern Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Ninety-four percent of those who took the survey said that they attend more than 50% of government meetings via Zoom, and more than 75% of those said that the change has resulted in less access.

Direct access to public officials and government data is an integral part of reporting and more than 75% of reporters who took the survey said the change from in-person to virtual meetings reduced or delayed their access to critical documents for stories. Also, the data showed that 65% of those responding reported that there was at least a 50% reduction in public participation at virtual meetings.

The reporters cite excuses such as staffing shortages due to COVID-19, in response to concerns about delays in responding to FOIL requests.

“It’s much more difficult to get someone to answer an email than to simply walk up to them before or after a meeting,” commented one journalist. “Often, emails end up being routed through minders, ‘Public Information Officers’ who further gum up the process of trying to speak with the public official you’re trying to contact.”

Eighty percent of respondents reported that the ability of reporters to track down stories and sources during the pandemic has dropped significantly.

It’s not all bad news, however. Forty-five percent of those responding said they have met the challenges of limited access by developing new and specific skills. Some have learned the skill of hosting and attending online conferences and meetings, while others are conducting interviews virtually.

The survey was sent to working reporters in a Google survey form. The information is the result of 40 responses.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund or give to the SPJ Foundation.


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