ARLINGTON, VA – They gathered just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., ten days before Christmas.
Newspaper editors. First Amendment advocates. Academics. Legal minds. Lobbyists. Leaders of local and national organizations. They came to think and talk and prepare for action.
Fighting the FOI battle never can be called easy, but in 2001’s year of change, the forces of privacy, privilege and secrecy reinforced the locks and widened the moat.
This group of FOI leaders had been summoned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Freedom Forum to reflect on recent battles and look forward to new ones. Their task: to create a new call to action and a fresh strategy for the fights ahead.
What’s become clear in discussions like the one in Arlington is that we need to speak more loudly and more often to the general public about FOI. We need to review the fundamentals for our audience and for ourselves. We need to ensure that the next generation of journalists has the knowledge and the tools it needs.
We need to underscore what we may take for granted in our daily lives as journalists – that public information and public process are the backbone of the news business. (If I may offer a parallel example: At my television station, we routinely review and re-examine our group goals and discuss them, so they don’t get lost amid the bustle of our normal work. We should treat FOI – and perhaps other core principles of journalism – the same way and include our audience in the discussions.)
We also need to sound the alarm about FOI threats and problems in ways that resonate with people far beyond our newsroom walls.
Plus, we need to acknowledge successful efforts that preserve or expand government accessibility. At SPJ, we now present our annual “Sunshine Awards” for FOI at the national convention instead of at smaller gatherings. We honor people in journalism, the legal profession, the nonprofit sector, even people in government. That kind of public recognition is important and should be a part of our overall effort.
This spring, we’ll see efforts to reach those objectives. Between March and May, SPJ, ASNE and the National Freedom of Information Coalition will debut significant new FOI projects aimed at stirring more awareness and support of FOI laws and principles. Many forces will be marshaled for this push, with journalists anchoring the central corps.
I won’t presume to share the specific plans of other organizations, but I can tell you what SPJ has in mind. Put simply, we want journalists to go beyond thinking and talking about FOI. We do those things well, but too often we do them only amongst ourselves.
As journalists, we must explain FOI to our readers, listeners, viewers and Internet visitors. We must help Americans understand that open government benefits us all and that public information should remain public. In other words, that the doors should remain open.
In March, SPJ’s FOI Committee will launch “Open Doors,” an outreach project funded by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.
We’re creating a new kind of tool kit for journalists, editors, news directors and even top-level media managers. One that will help them:
•Explain FOI to lay people in easily understood terms. In the process, we believe journalists at all levels can reaffirm their own beliefs in the importance of FOI.
•Highlight stories based on public records, meetings and process, so news consumers can recognize the relationship between public information and the news they take for granted.
•Find FOI resources easily, through a Web site and printed materials.
•Recognize potential threats to FOI from government, the private sector and, importantly, from our own missteps.
As I write this, the “Open Doors” project is still in development. By the time you read this, it should be in completed form. Come March, we hope to unveil the project and distribute it to SPJ chapters, newsrooms and select other organizations and individuals. The full content of the project also will be available on the spj.org Web site.
We hope journalists will use it. We hope the public will benefit from it. We hope it will open doors.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.