Home > Freedom of Information > Open Doors: Accessing Government Records

Mentor Match-up
Introduction | FOI Basics | FOI and the Courts | FOI and Privacy | FOI and Your Life
FOI and Daily News Coverage | Red Flags | FOI A to Z | Resources | Purchase a Copy


How to use ‘Open Doors’
Introduction by Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Chair
Introduction by Helen Thomas
Acknowledgements | Purchase Your Copy

How to use ‘Open Doors’

FOI “Q &A.” These narratives (basics, the courts, privacy, your life) provide an overview to Freedom of Information concepts and laws. These sections can be reprinted verbatim as editorials or commentaries.

FOI, the news and the community. This section includes a snapshot of how important FOI is to daily news coverage. Also included is a list of “Red Flags” – warning signs of restricted access that should be in the minds of journalists and other advocates of public access.

FOI “A to Z.” To encourage more reporting on FOI issues, included is an alphabetically-organized list of specific subjects where FOI laws apply. Think of it as an FOI “story tip sheet.”

FOI resources. “Open Doors” is itself a doorway to other FOI resources that offer more detailed and specific information.When you need FOI resources, let “Open Doors” be your gateway.

“Open Doors” logos and icons. All “Open Doors” logos and icons may be downloaded and reproduced to make it easy for visual media to flag FOI-related stories.


Introduction by Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Chair

There’s no question that Freedom of Information – the right of Americans to have access to government records and meetings – is one of the most important concepts of democracy in the United States. There’s also no question that FOI is one of the most important areas of interest for journalists and journalism organizations, as well as for other First Amendment advocates.

In my years as a broadcast journalist, an advocate and organizer of FOI in Montana, a state “Project Sunshine” chair for the Society of Professional Journalists and, finally, as SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee chair since 1999, I have found that people’s inquiries about FOI fall into three categories:

—How FOI laws work. (And the distinctions between state and federal
— How FOI laws or concepts apply to specific circumstances or subjects.
— Where more information on FOI can be found.

In creating this Freedom of Information resource, we at SPJ tried to address those three areas. In addition, we had to come to grips with some practical issues we knew would surround the finished product:

— It should be basic enough for people new to FOI, yet still be useful to FOI veterans.
— Within the journalism and media sector, it should be relevant to upper level managers, including publishers and broadcast station owners, as well as to front-line reporters, editors and news directors.
— Outside of journalism, it should be relevant to civic organizations, “good government” groups, politicians and government officials, even average citizens without any previous experience with the concept of FOI.

What you have before you is the result of SPJ’s deliberations. Our ultimate goal in producing this project is to increase the public visibility of FOI issues, whether through journalism or other means. “Open Doors” has been organized by sections. We hope you will find value in all of them. However, even if you find just one particular section useful, that’s OK.

So, read the material, share it with your co-workers and associates and, most important, use it!

Ian Marquand
SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman


Introduction by Helen Thomas

Dear Friend of Freedom of Information:

What would our profession do without the ability to access information held by government agencies? In other words, what would we do without state and federal Freedom of Information laws?

Every day through newspapers, magazines, news broadcasts, Internet sites, newsletters and other informational media, Americans learn about the operations of their government. Yet many Americans do not realize how much of that information comes from government documents, records and meetings.

In the best of all possible worlds public access to such information would be a given. As James Madison recognized, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” In reality, the media and citizens’ groups have fought long and hard to gain access to government records and meetings. Experience has taught us that open government is a “use it or lose it” proposition. Unless we continue to assert our right, the public’s right of access, we will lose it.

As a member of America’s news media, you are in the best position to educate and inform Americans about the importance of their Freedom of Information laws. You have the ability not only to report information gathered under FOI laws, but to tell your audience where you got it, how you got it and why continued public access to it is important.

I’m pleased that the Society of Professional Journalists has created the Open Doors project to help all American media carry this important message to readers, listeners, viewers and Web-surfers.

This is not a project specifically aimed at one medium or another. SPJ has worked to make this project as inclusive and useful as possible for all media.

Please take the time to review this information, to share it with your staff and to use the ideas and resources here to enhance your coverage of your community, your state and your country.

Being knowledgeable about FOI is critical for us as journalists and information providers; and it is equally critical for the citizens who turn to us when they need to know.

Helen Thomas
Hearst Newspapers



SPJ’s “Open Doors” project could not have been completed without the assistance and input of the following people and organizations:

First, the project could not have been attempted without the financial support of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and its board of directors.

Paul McMasters, President
Sue Porter, Vice-President
Steve Geimann, Secretary
Howard Dubin, Treasurer
David Boardman
Betsy Ashton
Fred Brown
David Carlson
Al Cross
Frank Gibson
Todd Gillman
Irwin Gratz

G. Kelly Hawes
James Highland
Jane Kirtley
Robert Leger
Hoag Levins
Tony Mauro
Dori Maynard
Mac McKerral
Russell Pulliam
Paul Steinle
Georgianna Fry Vines

Founded in 1961, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation is dedicated to ensuring that those who carry on the tradition of a free press are prepared for the challenge. Its goal is to support the educational programs of the Society of Professional Journalists and to serve the professional needs of journalists and students pursuing careers in journalism.

Thanks also to the directors and executive officers of the Society of Professional Journalists for their support of this concept.

The following individuals from within SPJ also made important contributions to the development of this project.

— Robert Becker, SPJ’s “Project Sunshine” chair for Washington, D.C.
— Charles Davis, SPJ’s FOI Committee co-chair and the director of the FOI Center at the University of Missouri
— Al Cross, SPJ’s 2001-2002 president and a political reporter for the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal
— Julie Grimes, SPJ’s deputy executive director, Indianapolis
— Lisa Floreancig, SPJ intern, Indianapolis
— Kenney Marlatt, San Jose Mercury News

Thanks also to the following people, some of whom are leaders within SPJ as well as within their own organizations, for their advice and leadership.

— Joe Adams, editorial writer, Jacksonville Times-Union
— Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman, The Freedom Forum
— Anders Gyllenhaal, 2001 FOI chair, American Society of Newspaper Editors
— Lucy Dalglish, executive director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Special thanks to Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. for its willingness to share examples of stories in which FOI laws played a prominent role.


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