Since our theme in this issue is journalism education, let’s conduct a small experiment.
Take a look at the most recent issue of your community’s newspaper. Specifically, check the front page and the front of the Metro/Community/Local News section. How many stories do you see that have their origins in public records, a public meeting or a proceeding in open court?
Did your city council consider a new ordinance? Is there new census data on your community available? A habitual DUI offender back in court? All of these stories rely on bedrock FOI laws.
Now, how many of those stories specifically mention the fact that they involve public records, meetings or proceedings?
Chances are, you’ll find at least one story – and maybe more – based on publicly available information or processes. Chances are equally good that the stories take that access for granted and make no mention of it.
It’s probably safe to say that most, if not all, of us in journalism believe that access to public records and meetings is a major pillar on which our news coverage is based. When SPJ was outlining its new “Open Doors” FOI project at the end of 2001, we decided to put that belief to the test, albeit in a limited way.
The result, as reported by research intern Lisa Floreancig in the “Open Doors” project published this spring, was a simple survey of news media, both print and broadcast, in different geographical areas. The survey’s methodology was very basic: We looked at the main stories for each outlet on a daily basis during the month of December – a month chosen, admittedly, to accommodate our printing deadlines.
We made sure all the media in the survey had Web sites. That way, if we couldn’t look at a physical newspaper or newscast on a daily basis, we could check the material in the online version.
We never intended the survey to be the final word on the importance of FOI to newsgathering in America. Nor was it intended as a tool to make a comparison of individual news outlets or to comment on the quantity or quality of their FOI-based reporting.
What we wanted was a snapshot of the role public records and public proceedings play in daily news coverage. Here’s what we found:
• The survey found that more than 20 percent of newspaper stories had an element of public records or meetings. (When court proceedings are added, the percentage increases to almost 30 percent.)
• For broadcast news, the figures are 10 to 20 percent.
Assuming that the average newspaper front page has five stories, the survey indicates that, on average, at least one of them will have a foundation in public access. For broadcast news, if one assumes that a typical broadcast will have 10 core stories, at least one of them will be grounded in public records or meetings.
It’s possible that a larger or longer survey might find numbers even higher. Even so, the “Open Doors” survey showed that public records and meetings (including court proceedings) make news on a regular basis.
The survey also indicated that many news outlets take public access for granted in their reporting. Only in rare cases did SPJ find a news outlet that clearly stated that information in a story was taken from public records or came out of a public meeting.
(I certainly don’t mean to shortchange the excellent work that some news organizations have done by clearly identifying FOI-based stories as part of short-term public education efforts. Our survey simply did not seek out such projects.)
It’s quite possible that you might see the results of the “Open Doors” survey and think, “We do a better job of it than that.”
That might well be true. I’d encourage you to put that assertion to the test. Look over the past month of your own outlet’s product. See what you find and talk about the results with other journalists. Better yet, share your findings with your audience and tell them why public access is important.
It’s one of the best public services you can offer.
To read the full results of the survey, and to learn more about SPJ’s newest FOI initiative, visit the “Open Doors” section of SPJ’s Web site at http://spj.org.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.