Quick: What’s freedom of information? Going online to get free resources for your stories? Wikipedia? WikiLeaks?
Actually, it’s none of the above. It’s the free flow of and access to information, particularly generated by government, in a free society. So why should it matter to you?
Because you’re not just someone carrying a notebook and pen or laptop, taking notes about what you see and then turning them in for publication or broadcast. You’re also a watchdog. It’s part of your job to help keep America’s public officials honest and pure, one senator, city council member or county commissioner at a time.
“What?” you say. “I’m overworked and underpaid. I have enough on my plate just getting my copy turned in and making ends meet without worrying about saving the world.”
Tough. That’s what you signed on for the day you got your first (paid or unpaid) job in journalism.
It won’t add to your bottom line, and it may take more than you think and cross you off a few people’s free food soirees lists, but it’s got its own unique reward: You can make a difference. How many people can say that in their profession?
Most of us became journalists because we love to tell the stories of those around us. But at the end of the day, how many of us are going to win Pulitzers? Or even get to write the “big” story. About the same percentage of actors who make it big in Hollywood.
The rest of us will churn out stories on property tax increases, road projects or the dismal/not-so-dismal percentages of our local sports teams. If we’re lucky, we may get an occasional email or phone call complimenting us on a good story.
As watchdogs, we won’t get much praise either. Some elected officials may even hate us if we do our jobs right. But we’ll make a difference. From reporting about the illegal closed city council meeting to sounding the alarm about legislation that restricts the public’s right to know, we’ll keep the governance of our corner of the world out of the back rooms and often-dark corridors of power.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an experienced writer/broadcaster with a master’s in communications or a newbie fresh out of school (even high school). If you care, if you’re diligent, you can make a difference.
Take me, for example. In the past couple of years, I’ve been honored with the Utah Press Association’s John E. Jones Award, SPJ’s Utah Headliners Service to Journalism Award and, most recently, SPJ’s Howard S. Dubin Award for my FOI advocacy. This year, because of my advocacy against a nasty piece of legislation that would have decimated Utah’s open records law, I’ve been featured in or on the news more times than the previous 49 years combined.
But when it comes to credentials, I’m an orphan child of the orphan children of journalism. I’m the managing editor of a group of 15 free (shudder!) monthly (gasp!) newspapers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah (double gasp!), who never has had time to finish even a four-year journalism degree (triple gasp!). I’m not even from the U.S. originally; I’m a naturalized Irish “alien” (life ending, Guinness-filled gasp!).
But when it came to FOI, I didn’t care about any of that. Not enough people were watching the hen house, not enough people were telling the stories; not enough citizens knew their rights were being eroded. So several years ago I jumped into the fray. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I made it up as I went along.
The one thing I had (and have) in spades was passion. In my heart and soul, I know this work is vitally important, that without it, we do those we serve, the American public, a gross injustice. Even in the midst of apathy, they rely on us to sound the alarm.
We need to be the ultimate whistle-blowers, sounding that whistle loud and clear over and over again, so that elected officials remember the power of the press and the power of the people we and they serve. We need to write and air stories that spotlight government corruption and back-room dealings.
We need to credit the open government laws that give us access to that information so vital to our readers/viewers/listeners.
There’s never going to be a Pulitzer on my mantle. But I go to sleep at night knowing that government of the people by the people is better in the sunshine, finding satisfaction in the small part I play in reminding the politicians and citizens of this truly great country of that fact.
What about you? Are you willing to be an “FOI warrior”? All you need is a belief in the cause and a willingness to do the work. Here, in this column and on the SPJ website, we’ll provide you with the tools. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what resources we can provide you with, and then share your stories, good and bad, with me and your peers.
Welcome to the fight. We’re “the few and the proud.”
Linda Petersen is managing editor of The Valley Journals, a group of community papers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah. She is president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, the Utah Headliners chapter FOI officer, and national FOI Committee Chairwoman. Email her at email@example.com.