Like many journalists and journalism educators, I needed some pushing to get immersed in Alabama FOI problems. And indeed, it has turned out to be an immersion. As a reporter, I had been successful in talking my way into meetings and in getting the records I needed to do my job. But as an editor, I saw that young reporters need more than brass to get the job done, and on reflection today, I can see that my own methods had been quite time-consuming and borderline unethical. I did it the way my heroes in the business had done it, and we all acted a bit like Clint Eastwood of “make my day” fame.
Today, we need education for journalists, the public and public officials. Information is our gold. We need modern tools to mine it, and we need the freedom to mine our fields.
Our opportunity in Alabama came when a group of concerned Alabama journalists ganged up on me and asked me to provide the leadership to get an FOI organization going similar to ones they were familiar with in other states – especially Florida – from which they had moved. Ron Sawyer, then publisher of the Tuscaloosa News, and the late Bruce Giles, executive editor of the News – both of whom spent much of their professional careers in Florida – joined hands with Carol Nunnelley (now with the AP Credibility Project) of the Birmingham News and with me at the University of Alabama to launch Alabama Center for Open Government (ALACOG). One of our doctoral students, Emily Hoff (who is now at LSU’s School of Journalism), provided capable assistance in drafting grant proposals for funds. Hoff later made the topic her dissertation.
ALACOG joined forces this year with the state’s Associated Press Managing Editors Association and its representative, Gregory Enns, of the Tuscaloosa News, to conduct the largest statewide records survey in U.S. history. Now we have disseminated our work throughout the state, appearing before professional and civic organizations to tell the story of “Every Citizen Has a Right,” which recounts the experiences of almost 200 students, faculty, professionals and civic groups as they requested records from all 67 counties and more than 200 towns, cities and campuses.
Our other sponsors were the state’s press association, Associated Press, state’s broadcasters association, several civic organizations and colleges and the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
The results of this exercise have been to galvanize the state’s media on behalf of FOI, to educate many public officials, to get the message to the public about the right to information, and to get openness on the public agenda.
Now we need to keep the momentum going by developing a continuing presence in the state’s media, education and political organizations about our movement.
Besides many phone and e-mail messages, I have talked to hundreds of journalists and others about the survey and have found very few who are not familiar with it – and none who thought we were just engaging in mischief. Many reporters have told me that things are better in their area because of the survey, though problems remain.
Our biggest challenge is to make sure the movement continues by coming up with meaningful public programs that keep the issue before the public and in the press. Gregory Enns and Bob Blalock will co-chair ALACOG beginning this fall and have plans for an annual FOI celebration, a newsletter that keeps the issue on the front-burner of the press and public, and a clearinghouse on open meetings problems faced by citizens and the press.
Ed Mullins is chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Alabama.