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Home > Publications > Quill > Pushing for better FOI laws


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Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Pushing for better FOI laws

Barbara Meagher

It’s a foreign feeling, I admit, to sit in a state-house gallery rooting for a bill. It’s something most journalists don’t do.

But I did just that this year, along with two editors. We also testified before legislative committees in favor of the bill. And it passed.

That bill was the first major overhaul to Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Law in 10 years. Journalists and citizens had been frustrated for years about being turned down when they asked for information, especially at police departments. Without arrest reports journalists can’t do the jobs we signed up for: monitor the government so citizens can have the information they need to be freethinkers in a democracy.

We all know that. The issue is, what to do about it? Well, I’m here to say that it’s time to take action, action beyond editorial writing. I’m talking face-to-face contact with lawmakers, police chiefs, any decision-makers who are holding us back from getting the job done.

I can hear you now: “Conflict of interest!”

But I’m advocating a new way of thinking.

How we did it

Since 1996, we’ve had an FOI coalition in our state called ACCESS/RI. In recent years, advocacy groups in the coalition, such as the ACLU, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, led the lobbying effort. Though press people had been involved in writing the proposed legislation, they weren’t always on hand to testify. This year, we in the news media decided to rally for the bill.

Part of the problem in the past was availability; journalists can’t just leave a story at the drop of a gavel. But speaking for myself, there were mixed feelings about getting so close to politicians. I am a former television reporter who covered some of these same people for 18 years.

But I’ve had a change of heart. Though I used to cover the state house, I haven’t since 2001. I decided I was free to lobby for the bill.

That was the distinction made by the Rhode Island Press Association, too.

“I think it does pose a conflict, and I think we try to handle that by not getting reporters involved in the process,” said Sheila Mullowney, executive editor of the Newport Daily News and association past president.

The decision was that only editors, being removed as they are from the front lines, would testify for the bill.

Is “lobbyist” a dirty word?

To most journalists, I’m guessing, “lobbyist” is close to a dirty word. We’ve reported on or read so many stories about lobbyists who have grown wealthy supporting questionable causes. Now think about the causes journalists might lobby for: access to public records, entry to public meetings, keeping our sources secret. All are causes that support our mission of being government watchdogs. There is a way to do it honorably.

Lobby like a journalist

John Howell, publisher of the newspaper group Beacon Communications, was one of the key members of our coalition. He was largely responsible for negotiating an early agreement with the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association that helped establish the bill’s credibility.

Howell says that if you stick to the traits that make you a journalist, you will still be able to look at yourself in the mirror.

“Dealing with people, you want to give them the complete picture. You don’t want to hide anything. You want to put it in as absolutely as fair a light as possible; let them see everything.”

What you can do

Editors and publishers, you can still be the journalists you are and accomplish change at the state capitol. Reporters, feed stories of your FOI problems to your editors and/or local FOI coalition to use in their testimony. And at the very least, respond to SPJ’s call to e-mail your senators, asking them to support the federal Shield Law.

As Scott Pickering, managing editor of the East Bay Newspapers and president of the Rhode Island Press Association, says, “Who else is going to step forward ... and push for changes like this than journalists, who see it firsthand?”

Your effort will be noticed

Journalism organizations must engage political systems to change laws that affect them. In our case, Sen. Michael Lenihan, one of our bill’s sponsors, says it makes an impression when journalists show up.

“If there’s a perception that, you know, I’d like to see this bill passed, but it’s not important to me to invest my time, effort and resources in it, then, really, how important is it?”

We were handed a surprise just before the July 4th weekend when Gov. Donald Carcieri vetoed our public records bill. But we are not giving up. If it fails, we’ll be back next year.

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