A Donald Trump presidency is the best thing that could have ever happened for freedom of information.
We know from history that threats to democracy result in bolstered freedom of information. Excessive government secrecy following World War II led journalists to push for the Freedom of Information Act. Watergate inspired a host of states to pass open record laws. The PATRIOT Act and increased post-Iraq War secrecy led to emergence of more state open government coalitions and federal FOIA advocacy groups.
For every action, reaction.
Since the election we’ve heard a variety of fears of what a Trump administration could do to the press and government transparency, including:
•Issuing subpoenas against journalists to identify confidential sources.
•Charging journalists under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information.
•Loosening libel laws (not likely since that’s outside the power of the president), or at least filing frivolous libel suits against journalists.
•Managing the message through public information officers and secretive political appointees, as well as creating a culture of secrecy within government, which could trickle down to state and local government agencies.
•Nominating federal judges hostile toward the press.
•Instructing agencies to thwart FOIA, or at minimum removing information from websites and government files, particularly climate data.
I hope all of this happens, and I hope the president rubs journalists’ noses in it via Twitter. I hope he sticks a big fat stick in that hornet nest.
“It’s going to be a backyard brawl,” Associated Press investigative team editor Ted Bridis told me. In the run-up to the election, Bridis and his team scoured through thousands of records and depositions regarding Trump. As a result, Bridis predicts Trump will work hard to punish leakers and hide damaging information.
This is an opportunity for journalists to push back at all levels of government, whether covering the White House or town hall. It’s time to apply journalistic jiu-jitsu, where the disadvantaged can defeat a stronger assailant by using leverage and taking the fight to the ground.
Here are 10 ways how:
1. Get pumped (and trained). Training is the best way to get reinvigorated and motivated to dig deeper. Pledge to attend the SPJ conference Sept. 7 to 9 in Anaheim, or an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference or Poynter online learning seminar. Seek out other training for your news organization, such as SPJ Google News Lab training.
2. Expose secrecy. Tell your community when government is hiding information that people want to know. It’s not inside baseball or a conflict of interest to report public record denials. Focus on how it affects average people, and quote them. The government isn’t saying “no” to you; it’s saying “no” to the thousands or millions of people you represent.
3. Show, don’t tell. When you get public records and data from agencies, post them online for your community to see. Show people how they can access the information themselves. Empower.
4. Stay cool. The last thing we want is for journalists to appear to be whiny little losers. Jumping up and down screaming plays into the hands of those who want to frame the media as self-interested watchdogs who are all bark and no bite. Educate the public with dignity, and treat government employees with respect.
5. Focus on what they do, not say. David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, founded DCReport.org recently to cover what the government does, not what government says it does. This is critical. “Journalists have to be resolute about covering what matters,” he told me. “If you’re just a reactive reporter, then you’re their best friend.”
6. From the ground up. Develop sources in an agency from the ground up — meaning government employees working in the trenches, not the political leaders who just want to use you. So you tick off the mayor or PIO? Good! Now you will have one less press release cluttering your inbox about the police department’s new DARE vehicle.
7. Watchdogpile. Form a consortium of journalists and news organizations in your community or state to carry out team projects and public record audits. Get involved with your state open government coalition. Fight for better public record laws, particularly for attorney fee provisions for when you prevail in court. Stronger, together, you can make journalism and FOI great again.
8. Appeal. If you are denied a public record, always appeal. It’s free, and about a third of the time it will kick records loose. Don’t accept lame denials, made-up exemptions or outrageous copy fees.
9. Sue. Now, more than ever, media organizations need to step up to sue for public records. Publicly praise those who do and publicly shame those who skulk away. Take advantage of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press media hotline (800-336-4243), SPJ Legal Defense Fund and National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Knight FOI Litigation Fund.
10. Be strong. Remember that what you do is a calling. The First Amendment is durable. The press, as a proxy for the public, is powerful, and by the end of the next four years we can actually improve FOI.
David Cuillier is director and associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, a member of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, former SPJ national president and co-author with Charles N. Davis of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.” Email.
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