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.