November 2nd, 2017 • Featured
Fixing FOI: Big ideas for a new era of transparency
Bring in the cats and dogs, and batten down the hatches: The forecast for government transparency calls for increasing clouds with a chance of heavy storms. This year the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation commissioned me to study the state of freedom of information in the United States, where it’s going and what can be done to improve it.
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.
Accessing information is challenging enough, but keeping the information safe, as well as ourselves, is becoming increasingly difficult. Most journalists don’t work in war zones, and most won’t be gunned down in their offices by terrorists, as we witnessed in the horrific massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris.
When a public agency denies you a public record, don’t get mad; get busy. And get help. Organizations like SPJ can help you get information the public needs to adequately self-govern: SUNSHINE NETWORK SPJ’s Sunshine Network provides resources and experts for every state.
The future of SPJ, journalism and even democracy rest squarely on two people’s shoulders: Joe and Chris. That’s a huge burden, I know, and it might seem a little melodramatic, but it’s true. I’m talking about two people who really keep our organization moving: SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel and Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Director Chris Vachon.
Now, more than ever, every journalist should have a “Plan B.” Journalism is not dead or dying, and there are amazing opportunities out there; but clearly the industry is a little more fluid today than it used to be. It’s crucial to develop a network to spring to a new opportunity if the need comes up.
I remember vividly a conversation I had about 10 years ago with Patrick Lee Plaisance, a former journalist and current media ethics scholar at Colorado State University. I asked him why he chose to focus his teaching and research — his life’s work — on ethics.
When I talk about freedom of information laws to students, pros or civic groups, I always ask if they can guess the first country to create a public records law. Most say England, Canada or the United States. They are usually surprised when they hear the answer: China.
The time is right for us to take a hard look at who we want to be and adapt to the changing journalism environment. We’ve done it before, which is why we remain the largest journalism organization in the United States.
These are exciting times for journalism, and a bit unnerving. But journalism is NOT dead or dying; it’s evolving. Journalism matters. I’m glad SPJ can play a role, and during this next year I will need your help. During my speech at EIJ13 in Anaheim, Calif.,
Check out five federal databases that you can download for free, pull into Microsoft Excel, and analyze to identify trends and problems in your community. Start with these easily obtainable databases and then use your FOI skills to request more public data specific to your beat.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to become a better journalist, then what better way than to take advantage of free training in accessing public records? Here are five ways to hone your FOI skills this year on the cheap: 1.
When natural disaster affects your community, be prepared to cover it — and save lives — with the help of public records. Before catastrophe strikes Some of the best reporting exposes vulnerabilities before disaster hits. •Look at single-family-home building permits issued by your county government for areas prone to flooding or wildfires.
After struggling to get public data out of government agencies, why let it sit on a hard drive? Share it with the world! Now anyone can post data on websites or blogs for people to view as sortable tables, charts and maps.
Deb Gruver in Wichita. Jorge Barrientos in Bakersfield. Clifford Anthony from Cleveland. All freedom of information warriors, along with the 1,006 other people I met this summer during the 45-day “Access Across America” road trip. They are 1,000 points of light, shedding understanding in their communities through public records.
Foiled by federal FOIA? Get help from the Office of Government Information Services. This federal ombudsman office, housed in the National Archives and Records Administration just outside Washington, D.C., in College Park, Md., is a year old as of September. Seven staff attorneys mediate disputes when requesters feel agencies are not following the U.S.
Strengthen your public records skills through an easy document-gathering workout regimen: 1. FOI FIRST ON FRIDAYS Pick one hour a week, block out everything for that hour, and submit one records request. If you do this each week, you’ll have 52 requests a year.
Accessing public records should be easy: ask and then get. Unfortunately, many officials illegally deny valid records requests and you don’t have the time or money to sue. I asked William Ury, co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and co-author of “Getting to Yes,” if we can apply his principles to the process of records requests and he said, well, “yes.”
What good is access to government records if it costs as much as a bank buyout to get copies? Too often public agencies charge more than they should for copies of records, sometimes as much as $1 or more per page.
Government records can yield some awesome features for your community and news-you-can-use data for your Web site that people will love. Here are 11 of my favorites: [b]1. INVENTORS Look at U.S. patent records to find wacky inventions in your area.
When submitting a public records request letter, either through your state public records law or the federal Freedom of Information Act, it pays to think tone. How you write your letter can affect whether a public official responds, regardless of the law.
Just because you’re carrying a gun doesn’t mean you have to use it. Sometimes it should stay holstered. Same with some government documents and data. A record that is legally public doesn’t have to be posted for the public. That’s difficult for me to say, because I believe strongly in open government.
When looking for great documents to support your stories, be sure to reap the benefits of freedom of information advocates who have already acquired government records and posted them online for everyone to view. These document vaults are rich with information and story ideas: wrongdoing by local companies; complaints against television shows; investigations into prominent newsmakers.
Finally, some improvements to the federal Freedom of Information Act. On Dec. 31, President Bush signed into law the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which was the biggest overhaul of FOIA since 1996. While on paper the amendments improve access to federal records, the law’s effectiveness is so far unknown, according to SPJ attorney Laurie Babinski.
One of the most effective ways of overcoming a public records denial is to tell people about it. Yet a lot of journalists hesitate to write stories when government hides information from the public. Some say it’s “insider baseball,” a conflict of interest to write about disputes between journalists and government.
Chapters and newsrooms are doing great work in freedom of information, so the FOI Committee decided to share some of its programs with everyone. At the SPJ Web site, you’ll find dozens of ideas for FOI programs suitable for professional chapters, campus chapters or newsrooms.
One illegal public record denial, shame on them. Two illegal denials, shame on me. When a public agency denies a public records request, and suing isn’t an option, don’t give up and enable future denials. Put a stop to it with peer pressure.
Journalists don’t have to wait until a catastrophe to cover failing infrastructure in their communities. Following the Minneapolis bridge collapse, media outlets throughout the country scrambled to find documents pinpointing crumbling bridges in their own communities. Some government agencies responded by making the records secret, saying that news reporting highlights vulnerable targets for terrorists and that journalists wouldn’t be able to interpret the records.
When officials deny your public records requests, turn “no” into “know,” as in “right to know.” Below are 10 common reasons agencies rebuff freedom of information requests and ways to prevail that FOI Committee member Charles Davis and I developed for the SPJ newsroom training program.
When trying to do our best, it’s sometimes helpful to learn from the best. Many of the Sigma Delta Chi award-winning stories highlighted in this issue of Quill relied on public records. By using a document-state-of-mind scanning method, we can identify some of the records obtained by the reporters and apply that to our own reporting.
When Lusk Herald reporter Brandie Bartelt wanted to find out why the police chief resigned in January, she knew she could ask Mayor Pete Pier. The official city reason was that the Lusk, Wyo., chief was “retiring.” In an off-the-record interview, however, Pier confirmed Bartelt’s suspicions that the chief wasn’t doing the job and was asked to resign.
No matter what beat you cover or media organization you work for, chances are you will need to find information about a person. Below are dozens of public records any journalist or citizen can tap into to get background information. Check with your state SPJ Sunshine chairman (www.spj.org/sunshine-chairs.asp)