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Home > Publications > Quill > Where are the Watchdogs?


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Monday, October 11, 2010
Where are the Watchdogs?

When a lack of FOI education, resources leaves public records untouched

By April Dudash

It’s no secret that newsroom demographics are changing. Older, more seasoned journalists are being replaced with dewy-eyed newbies out of college. As younger journalists are being added to the newsroom, they are bringing crucial multimedia skills and accepting meager pay.

This may seem like the package deal to struggling media outlets, but many young reporters nowadays are starting out with a lack of solid freedom of information knowledge.

“We’re losing the pros, the wizened curmudgeons who have picked this up over time and know the tricks and tips,” said David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman. “We’ve lost them, and unfortunately we have to make up that void. We have to train these newcomers and get them up to speed.”

As Cuillier embarked on a national FOI training tour over the summer (hitting 33 states in 45 days), he noticed that publications, especially community newspapers and small dailies, don’t have the resources to provide training to those student and professional journalists who yearn for it.

In order to combat overall discomfort with the FOIA, advocates and journalists are seeing the growing importance of starting FOI training early.

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government and member of the SPJ Utah Headliners chapter, thinks it’s important to target students while they’re in high school. Her organization recently finished a video, “Government: It’s All About You,” that will be distributed to Utah high schools. The video will include information on how to make public records requests.

“We just noticed among students an attitude of ‘That’s my parent’s world. That has nothing to do with me,’” Petersen said.

Journalists, young and old, should hold FOI audits to check whether their communities are complying with the public records law. Georgia FOI advocates have held a two-part statewide audit where undergraduate journalism students acted as the requesters.

Students understand FOI better when they actively engage in requests, said Joshua Azriel, assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and one of the audit’s coordinators.

“When they are denied the record, that’s when you see the light bulb go off,” Azriel said. “You start to see some of the frustration and anger, and that’s a good thing actually because they won’t forget the experience.”

Part one of the Georgia Student Sunshine Audit found that overall, one in three record-holders failed to comply with the law. Georgia county commissions were the most open, whereas law enforcement agencies were the least compliant.

Another issue is the reliance on technology. Students who find all their news and journalism tools online don’t want to take the time to make in-person records requests.

“It’s become a harder and harder sell to convince a journalism student that it’s really important to get out of your chair to get to the courthouse or get to the police station,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Journalism programs that are focusing on multimedia and online journalism may forget that FOI is an important part of the curriculum. Schools and newsrooms are in danger of focusing too much on the packaging of journalism rather than the information-gathering process.

“[FOI] is right up there with AP Style,” LoMonte said. “It should be a meat-and-potatoes part of any journalism curriculum.”

Aggressive reporters are relied upon to expose inefficiencies and corruption within government, and if students grow into professionals who can’t make requests, this will be a severe blow to future watchdog journalism.

“The profession is going to be in danger if we turn out a generation of students who are intimidated,” Azriel said.

As newsrooms struggle with their budgets due to shifting audience patterns and declining advertising revenue, they have fewer resources to fight freedom of information legal battles, let alone have time to make records requests and provide professional FOI training to their staffs.

Charles Zobell, managing editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Nevada Freedom of Information Coalition president, said that when his publication decides to file a lawsuit to attain public records, it has to be a lawsuit they know they can win.

“Sometimes, (agencies) will just challenge us, almost like they’re saying, ‘So sue us,’” Zobell said. “Clearly it’s better if we can work this out without lawsuits because they’re expensive and time-consuming. But sometimes we have to sue to show we’re serious.”

But newsrooms can sidestep expensive litigation by taking simple preventive measures — making sure reporters know the language of FOI laws. The Review-Journal is very aggressive with the FOI training of its staff, Zobell said. The company attorney holds media law meetings, and the paper makes sample request letters and the language of the Nevada FOI laws widely available.

To battle FOI budget concerns, the National Freedom of Information Coalition based at the Missouri School of Journalism has created the Knight FOI Fund, a $2 million fund that supports state open government groups that can’t afford FOI litigation. Media outlets can take advantage of such funding.

“I don’t see the same vitality in the media for pressing ahead to make sure the public gets access to all the records, all the information that rightfully belongs to them,” said Coalition Executive Director Ken Bunting. “These days, the first thing they look at is the budget.”

The fight for records also has been curbed by lack of time. Miriam Nisbet is the director of the federal Office of Government Information Services, which has been in place for about a year and acts as a mediator between requesters and federal agencies. Those who can’t spend time on long-term investigations don’t take the time to fill out requests. She said that out of the 308 cases OGIS has handled since its start in September 2009, the office has received 33 requests for assistance from people who have identified themselves as journalists or as part of a journalism organization.

“Though FOIA has very strict time limits, it often takes much, much longer,” Nisbet said. “If you’re really working on a tight deadline, you’re simply not going to use FOIA.”

The 24-hour news cycle and intense pressure between media outlets to spread the word first can also contribute to impatience.

“Stories break more quickly,” said FOI expert Alasdair Roberts, who is a professor of law and public policy at Suffolk University Law School. “On the other hand, the FOI process is still consistently slow and sometimes getting slower. That mismatch might be getting worse over time.”

Congress has been surprised that journalists are not necessarily using FOIA as much as it had predicted, Nisbet said. A lack of federal FOI knowledge among journalists might be contributing to this issue.

“They know it exists, but they aren’t exactly comfortable with using it,” she said. “That’s not their job. Their job isn’t being intimately acquainted with legal details.”

This discomfort and lack of resources within the journalism industry could be opening the door for others to take on the challenge of changing the U.S. FOI landscape. Some influential, revealing information has come from whistle-blowers and sites like WikiLeaks, which has garnered mass attention this year since revealing more than 91,000 Afghanistan war reports at the end of July. The result was a freedom of information uproar, and debate ensued over what should rightfully be made public.

The danger of this is making public records look unattainable to American citizens, said WikiFOIA Editor Joshua Meyer. A wiki is a database of pages that can be edited live, and WikiFOIA houses FOIA information on the state and local levels as well as resources for requesters.

“If all of a sudden all the major news stories come out through leaks and major things like that, the public looks at it and thinks they’re all of a sudden out of the loop and they have to rely on journalists,” Meyer said.

In years past, some major scandals could be linked to leaks, such as uncovered Climategate e-mails that caused people to question scientific conduct within the Climatic Research Unit of the U.K. University of East Anglia. Sarah Palin’s personal e-mails were also the subject of a leak in September 2008. The public may think that journalism is moving from using FOIA to relying on confidential sources and whistle-blowers, Meyer said.

Cuillier, SPJ’s FOI Committee chairman, said there’s a need for a more unified FOI media front. FOI advocates, open government coalitions and journalism organizations need to band together across the country. There needs to be a nationwide effort to create a network of training opportunities and FOI help, which could be organized by a national FOI trainer.

“(Organizations like SPJ) don’t want to be feeding this every year for eternity,” Cuillier said of a full-time national position. “We need to find a way to make this self-sustaining.”

If newsrooms need monetary help standing up for their FOI requests, grants are available through SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund and the aforementioned National Freedom of Information Coalition Knight FOI Fund.

Also, make sure to join the national online conversation. For example, try Twitter. Every Friday at 2 p.m. Eastern, Sunshine Review and WikiFOIA sponsor a live discussion with the hashtag #FOIAchat. There, FOI enthusiasts, journalists and interested organizations discuss current events, problems gaining access to records and other major FOI topics.

Outside of Twitter, make sure to connect with local and state FOI organizations and experts. They can provide great FOI advice, especially when public records requests end up being denied or ignored.

“Cut through those roadblocks, knock down barriers and get public records that are legally available to citizens,” Cuillier said. “If we don’t do it, nobody else will.”

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