March 12th, 2018 • Featured
How news literacy programs can help journalists earn back trust
In the fall of 2006, after spending nearly 35 years as a reporter, editor and then the editor of one of America’s largest daily newspapers, I left my job to help start the newest journalism school in the country. Even then, it was an act of audacious optimism.
It was fewer than 10 days before Donald Trump’s inauguration when he berated CNN and its reporter, Jim Acosta, during a news conference at Trump Tower. “Quiet,” Trump told Acosta as the reporter tried to answer a question. “Don’t be rude, don’t be rude.”
Filed a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but ran into a few bumps? The Society of Professional Journalists wants to help.
November 2nd, 2017 • Quill Archives
Freelancers: Learn to overcome record request hurdles
“And who are you reporting for?” This the most dreaded question I hear as a freelancer, especially when I’m calling a public office to request records. I don’t fault anyone for asking it — it’s a natural question, and I’m sure I would ask it too, if the tables were turned.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold has covered a wide variety of topics in his 17 years at the newspaper. Like many journalists, he started as an intern before becoming a night cops reporter. He has since reported on the Washington, D.C.,
November 2nd, 2017 • Featured
Reimagining access rights under the First Amendment
We are living through an anti-openness renaissance. In June, on the eve of the special election in the Georgia Six, as it came to be known, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff excluded a reporter for the conservative Washington Free Beacon from a campaign event, while Republican candidate Karen Handel gave the same treatment to a reporter for the liberal site ThinkProgress.
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.
In 2010, when we started MuckRock, a non-profit website that helps newsrooms and journalists around the country file and track public records requests, one of our big bets was that if you filed a lot of FOIA requests, you’d get better at it.
What does the Trump administration mean for freedom of information, public records, and general government accountability and transparency? Maybe the news media should shy away from the prediction business based on the not-too-stellar record of poll watching in 2016. No matter who is president, there’s an ever-increasing need for vigilance from journalists to safeguard the values of government transparency and openness underscored by the Freedom of Information Act and all public records laws.
February 23rd, 2017 • Quill Archives
Under Trump, A (Potentially) Bright Spot In A Foggy Landscape
President Donald Trump craves the spotlight. For that reason alone, he will not shut out the media over the next four years. He is too dependent on their attention. But he will continue to single out favorites for special treatment and bash those who cover him critically.
There’s good reason for existential angst about transparency in the Trump administration. Breaking with precedent, President Donald Trump declined to release his tax returns as a candidate. He ditched his press pool. And while Freedom of Information Act requests from other people provided him endless speech and tweet fodder during his fight for the presidency, he has shown no eagerness to return the favor and strengthen the law.
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.
Scum. Liars. Disgusting. Corrupt. All words the public and journalists heard during what could very well be the most divisive election we’ve ever seen. While the U.S. presidential race may be over, the wounds are still healing. And while President-elect Donald Trump seems to be softening on some of his campaign promises, he has yet to back off the media.
When Illinois journalist Susan Sarkauskas was denied access to a meeting of the Waubonsee Community College Board of Trustees last year, she could have filed a lawsuit alleging the board had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. Instead, Sarkauskas simply wrote to the Illinois attorney general.
The Freedom of Information Act will mark its 50th anniversary next summer. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill, passed unanimously by both houses of Congress, on July 4, 1966, amid much fanfare. Leaders of Sigma Delta Chi, the predecessor of SPJ, had worked Capitol Hill for 10 years to get a federal open records bill passed.
Deep in the grounds of Northeastern Pennsylvania, one of 66 oil and gas operators injects a high-pressure slurry of water and undisclosed chemicals into fractures in the rock, cracking the sediment and allowing oil to flow freely into one of 7,700 collecting wells.
Malia Zimmerman boarded the plane to American Samoa knowing this island visit would be anything but a vacation. The Hawaii-based reporter had been recruited by a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a life-threatening mission: investigate slave labor at a garment factory in an area plagued by government corruption, police misconduct and federal government neglect.
As EIJ15 draws closer, I am reflecting on the year behind me. It sounds more like lyrics to a Billy Joel song than a year as SPJ president: FBI, Ferguson, Charlie Hebdo, ISIS, the U.S. Forest Service, Brian Williams, Rolling Stone, Hillary Clinton and Indiana’s RFRA.
Beneath the hot sun, a group of small, colorfully billed Sub-Saharan birds perches on the backs of large mammals, feeding on ticks and other parasites. These birds are oxpeckers, the avian inspiration behind South African journalist Fiona Macleod’s environmental journalism watchdog organization of the same name.
State open government laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act won’t help journalists seeking information directly from Native American tribal governments. As sovereign nations, the 566 federally recognized tribes operate apart from those statutes. Only because Maine’s unique statutory framework treats tribes as municipal governments does that state’s open records law apply when tribes communicate in their municipal capacities with other governments.
A county council in Maryland made an announcement in October that grabbed my attention: It was launching a new digital tool to track and share the results of state public information requests. My first reaction: Pretty cool; it’s about time; more organizations should do this.
Jason Leopold is an investigative journalist, recently hired by Vice News. Before landing his recent gig, Leopold freelanced and worked for many other outlets, including Truthout, Al-Jazeera America, Salon, the Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post. He is best known for work primarily derived from his aggressive pursuit of Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies.
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.
Public records and the information and data that come from them can be invaluable to your stories and can take your reporting to the next level. This is true for all journalists, but particularly important for young and early-career reporters trying to make their work stand out.
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.
Upon his election in 2008, President Obama listed his promises to protect federal whistle-blowers and inspire a new level of openness in government in an agenda on Change.gov. The agenda describes federal whistle-blowers as “watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.”
Sometimes hearing or just seeing “FOIA” can put you in a tizzy. Yes, the Freedom of Information Act and similar state laws can be hard to work through. And yes, it is a law, which can be intimidating on its own.
Tahlequah and Pawhuska, Okla., are 120 miles apart and are homes to very different American Indian tribes. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is based in Tahlequah, and the Osage Nation is headquartered in Pawhuska. Both tribal communities, acting independently, have recently passed shield laws, creating the first such reporter’s privilege laws for native journalists.
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.
Days: 3,652. Weeks: 520. Months: 120. Years: 10. Ten years ago, the U.S. was rocked by the biggest terrorist attack in its history. The nation lost 2,977 people that day. After 10 years, the legacy of that terrible day persists. The times may have changed, but 9/11 left a mark that may have been tempered with time but can never be erased.
Editor’s note: Portions of this column appeared in a previous Salt Lake Tribune column by the author. Every so often, the FOI Toolbox changes its focus from how journalists can obtain information to how SPJ, both through members and as an organization, can advocate better FOI policy at state and federal levels.
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.