Posts Tagged ‘FOI’


14 Death Cab for Cutie Lyrics that Are Actually About FOI

Illustration by Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 Director

In these dark times—coming out of an anti-access administration and right into a an anti-press administration—we journalists may benefit from brazenly turning our attention to less stark information.

This is one of those times.

Oregonian journo Bethany Barnes argues a 2015 indie-favorite album is about public records requests and not about love.

Maybe she’s right or maybe she’s alternatively factualizing to make her case in a post-truth sense.

I think it’s best to let you decide..

Death Cab For Cutie’s Latest Album is About Love—of FOIA

By Bethany Barnes

Death Cab For Cutie is an indie rock band known for songs that chronicle love stories fueled by cynicism and passion. So it was only a matter of time before they released an album about records requests.

I recently got around to listening to Death Cab’s latest album and I think there’s a case to be made that it’s a soulful tribute to transparency.

For starters, it’s called Kintsugi. Kintsugi, as I learned from a quick Google search, is a Japanese pottery technique used to make new art by fusing together broken pieces. Conceptually, Kintsugi is about embracing something broken to find beauty. Anyone who has filed a records request can consider themselves a practitioner of the same art form.

We know the Freedom of Information Act is both beautiful and broken. Don’t take my word for it, just read this take from the government on the matter: “FOIA Is Broken: A Report

Not that I need to convince this audience, but for proof of what’s heart-stopping about public records, consider how the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The paper’s investigation exposed how a helicopter design flaw killed 250 US servicemen.

A gem from the story behind that story, as told by Roy J. Harris Jr. in his excellent book
Pulitzer’s Gold”:

“Can you tell me about these accidents?” Thompson asked.

“No I can’t,” White responded.

“Well, what if I sent a FOIA?” the reporter followed up.

White hesitated.

“I’ve been waiting years for somebody to ask that.”

That reporting saved lives. The deadly flaw wasn’t unknown; it was just that nobody fixed it until the press got involved. Military records showed that.

Emotional stuff, public records. That’s why it makes perfect sense that Death Cab, once described as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining,” would inevitably make an entire album’s subject freedom of information.

Let’s look at the lyrical evidence:

“I don’t know why/I don’t know why/I return to the scenes of these crimes” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

You can’t stop thinking about that police brief you read the other day. You’ve got a hunch, so you file a request for the police reports.

“You’re always out of reach when I’m in pursuit/Long winded then suddenly mute”  — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

Clearly an ode to a records officer.

“And I’ve got nowhere to go except further below/So I keep digging/And it gets darker everyday/But I see no other way than just committing.” — Song: “Everything’s A Ceiling”

The point in the investigation when you start muttering to yourself, “Follow the money!”

“Zeros and ones, patterns appear/They’ll prove to all that we were here/For if there is no document/We cannot build our monument” — Song: “Binary Sea”

Obviously a conversation about why you need to talk to the IT person and not the spokesperson about exporting the database in a machine-readable format.

“And so I wait but I never seem to learn/How to capture your diminishing returns” — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

When the redactions get heavier with each subsequent request.

“You’ll never have to hear the word “no”/If you keep all your friends on the payroll/The non-disclosure pages signed/Your secret’s safe between those lines” — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

When the agency has denied your records request and you must explain why the public interest demands disclosure.

“I don’t know why, I don’t know why/I don’t know what I expect to find/Where all the news is second hand/And everything just goes on as planned” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

When the agency’s spokesperson doesn’t understand why you won’t just say which exact record you want and you sigh and say, “But I haven’t seen the records because you won’t let me see them. I can’t ask for something if I don’t know it exists. They are your records and I don’t know how you keep them. That’s why I’m asking.”

“Darling, don’t you understand/That there are no winners/Or medals hung from silken strands/To greet you at the finish/As we’re dissolving into the sea/I can only take what I can carry/As the counsel’s combing through our debris/For the treasures we never buried” — Song: “Hold No Guns”

When the spokesperson is breaking the bad news to officials that the agency’s general counsel is reviewing your records request and will soon produce damning documents.

“And there’s a dumpster in the driveway/Of all the plans that came undone” — Song: “Black Sun”

Corrupt officials have heard about your request and they’re not taking it well.

“There’s a long, slow fade/To a darkened stage/And I hear you say/’Only a fool gives it away’ — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

The agency has asserted that it is allowed to charge “reasonable fees.” The fees are not reasonable.

“Seems you finally found, finally found El Dorado/So why does it feel underwhelming, barely real?” — Song: “El Dorado”

El Dorado is a pet name for The Documents. Clearly.

“And it’s such a hard thing to do/So take all you can” — Song: “Ingene”

When you’ve negotiated to inspect the records in person so must take as many photos of them with your phone as you can because this might be your only chance.

“No room in frame/For two” — Song: “No Room in Frame”

You have the records, you’ve found proof of wrongdoing, you’ve written the story—your editor urges you to focus. It is time to cut out some hard-won details. Can’t bog down the narrative.

“So lean in close or lend an ear/There’s something brilliant bound to happen here” — Song: “Binary Sea”

The investigation is done. It’s on today’s front page. You’re at your desk and the phone rings. On the line is someone who just read your story. She’s calling to tell you you can get even more records.

Sure, maybe the album is about a romance. But I like to think Ben Gibbard, Death Cab’s frontman, is telling us about the power and poetry found in the pursuit of public records.  After all, the band’s most famous single is “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

Isn’t that what every journalist must do to shed light?


Bethany Barnes is a journalist at The Oregonian. Before taking her records requests to Portland, she spent three years in Las Vegas (Also the subject of a Death Cab song. See “Little Bribes”) and in 2016 was named Nevada’s Outstanding Journalist.

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Guilty by Omission: Tristram Korten and FCIR Investigate What Florida’s DEP Leaves Out

It started off as a passing complaint from a former contractor with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; the word “climate change” was taboo. The contractor had been hired to write educational fact sheets about coral reefs, he told Tristram Korten, editor at the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.  But every time he referenced climate change, he was told to remove or alter the phrase.

Korten knew if the tip turned out to be true, it would invite an interesting story. How could a state like Florida, rich in biodiversity and threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather, be expected to protect its environment if a key agency could not address a major threat? Yet the whole story was based off a single source and as any journalist knows; that is simply not good enough. Korten needed more verification, but it would be a challenge. He’d have to prove a negative.

Did the Florida DEP really avoid the term “climate change?”

Korten and the FCIR’s investigation uncovered a major problem. Not only had the terms “climate change” and “global warming” dropped progressively out of public documents year after year, other agencies were boycotting the issue as well. It all seemed to coincide with the inauguration of new governor Rick Scott, who upon taking office in 2011, reorganized the DEP and appointed a new director.

Although there was no explicit order from Scott to the leaders of state agencies and Scott himself denied the claim, the findings kicked off an investigation that is still ongoing. Korten has reported omissions at the Department of Transportation, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Florida Department of Health.

How did he do it? In this case, there was no specific document to request, and no specific law to cite. Government officials refused to grant interviews; instead, Korten received short, dismissive email replies like “DEP does not have a policy on this.” Employees at state agencies were reluctant to talk, or insisted on remaining anonymous, for fear of losing their jobs.

Here are the tools and techniques Korten used to deal with those issues.

An email search. After filing a public records search for the information, Korten and his team employed a tightly controlled email search to look for explicit mentions of communications policies between agencies, or from agency leaders to employees. But the email search was kind of a needle-in-a-haystack approach, said Korten. He didn’t want to spend too much time on a fishing expedition through thousands of emails. However, his search did turn up one piece of evidence, a 2014 email from the Coastal office’s external affairs administrator to a regional administrator, telling him to avoid claiming “climate change” as a cause when he appeared in a National Geographic/Audubon documentary about sea-level rise. If using this approach, Korten advises journalists to request communications in their native electronic format to preserve the original text.

 

April 2014 email exchange between Florida DEP employees Michael Shirley, a regional administrator, and  Pamela King Phillips, the coastal office’s external affairs administrator. Story by Tristram Korten and fcir.org.

April 2014 email exchange between Florida DEP employees Michael Shirley, a regional administrator, and
Pamela King Phillips, the coastal office’s external affairs administrator. Story by Tristram Korten and fcir.org.

Linked In: Linked In is a great tool for finding current and former employees with various agencies. Because many current employees didn’t want to go on record for this story, Korten relied on finding former employees with valuable insight but no fear of retaliation. The best parts about this social media tool are being able to search by dates employed, and to see connections related to you or to other sources. Many ex-employees still balk at going on the record, however. Journalists can find and contact academics, contractors, lobbyists, and scientists with connections at this agency for more honest insight.

korten2

Linked In can be an invaluable tool in locating and connecting with sources.

Annual Publications and Reports. Korten and his team obtained the yearly DEP reports from 2010 (the year before Scott took office) up until 2015. This was an easy and convenient way to analyze the department’s priorities over time; as most agencies post their annual reports online for the general public. And there’s a simple technology that makes sifting through a hundred pages of pdf document feasible in minutes: the Ctrl + F (or find) function. Korten and his team ran a keyword analysis of PDF files on DEP’s public website — which included reports, agendas, correspondence and other communications. The result was a noticeable difference over the years, 209 instances in 20 documents in 2010 declined to only 34 occurrences in 2014. And Korten said most of the 2014 instances were merely references to older documents. Korten also suggests getting original drafts of the reports, if freedom of information laws allow. This way, you can analyze what edits were made, including erroneous omissions or rewordings.

Number of "climate change" references in Florida DEP reports, data collected by fcir.org

Number of “climate change” references in Florida DEP reports, data collected by fcir.org

Interviews, interviews, interviews. It’s crucial to attempt to get both sides of the story, even if one side refuses to talk. In Korten’s case, the lack of response from agency officials spoke volumes. And every example of censorship provided by an ex-employee served to strengthen the original tip. Korten said most of his networking took place in the state capital, Tallahassee, right at the heart of the government activity.

What’s next?

Korten is most anxious to see how his story and investigation will lead to the reintroduction of “climate change” into the public sphere. He wonders if the “ban” has impaired scientists’ and officials’ ability to carry out their jobs, and to what extent the former administration’s initiatives and laws have been dismantled. He’s hopeful for the future, now that the problem has been exposed.

“The response from inside the DEP was that people, many of whom were scientists, were frustrated with this taboo,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to put that restriction back on them.”

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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How to FOIA: Environmental Protection Agency

When an environmental story breaks, there’s one agency that always seems to get called for comment: the Environmental Protection Agency. “Environment” is in the name, after all. EPA handles between 9,000 and 12,000 Freedom of information requests each year, according to FOIA.gov, ranking it 15th among all government departments and federal agencies in amount of records requests. Their track record for processing and granting requests, when compared to other departments, isn’t half bad. It’s also not good. Out of over 12,600 total active FOIA requests in FY 2014, the EPA processed 10,130; or 80%. Processed doesn’t mean granted, however, and by the end of the calendar year, over 2,500 requests were still awaiting a decision.

Those aren’t the odds a reporter wants, but better than the 103,480 records sitting in backlog at the Department of Homeland Security or the 3,373-day-old request awaiting a decision at the Department of Defense.

http://www.foia.gov/data.html

http://www.foia.gov/data.html

 

Explore more FOIA stats here.

How does FOIA work at the EPA?

The EPA presumes government openness, its website claims, releasing national information and making discretionary decisions regarding state, private and possibly exempt requests. Filing a FOIA request is “neither complicated nor time-consuming,” the resource page reads. Experienced reporters would tell you it’s a false claim. Even though the agency promotes government transparency and provides several online resources, it remains one of the most difficult to contact or obtain information from, according to Christy George, former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Like with other departments, FOIA requests must be made in writing, either through snail mail or FOIAonline. The agency has twenty days to respond, but the clock starts ticking only after the specific information to be requested has been identified and any fees paid. Journalists may be charged $0.15 per page for photocopying after the first 100 pages. The 20-day response period can be extended by fee waiver proceedings, appeals processes to the National FOIA Officer, or with “large-scale” projects that require information from multiple agencies.

Nine exemptions may exclude your information of interest from being released by any department.

  1. Classified national defense and foreign relations information.
  2. Internal agency rules and practices.
  3. Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
  4. Trade secrets and other confidential business information.
  5. Inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges.
  6. Information involving matters of personal privacy (protected under the Privacy Act or containing sensitive personally identifiable information).
  7. Information compiled for law enforcement purposes, to the extent that the production of those records:
    1. Could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.
    2. Would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.
    3. Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
    4. Could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source.
    5. Would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement, investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.
    6. Could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.
  8. Information relating to the supervision of financial institutions.
  9. Geological information on wells.

Number nine seems problematic, as many stories analyzing oil wells and fracking would need to rely on this information. But a larger challenge, says journalist Michael Corey from the Center of Investigative Reporting, is getting through the “stone wall” of trade secrets and noncompliance of large industrial companies. Companies the EPA has the power to regulate, but not the power to expose.

Contacting the EPA

EPA is divided into ten regions, each with its own Regional Freedom of Information Officer. Contact information is listed on the EPA’s official website along with a map in case you don’t know your particular region’s number or officer.

Requests can also be made through EPA headquarters, and nearly 2,000 records are every year. Surprisingly, Regions 5 (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI) and 2 (NJ, NY, PR, VI) are just as busy as headquarters, if not more so, but grant a higher percentage of requests per year. The general consensus among environmental reporters, says Inside Climate News reporter Lisa Song, is that regional staff are more helpful than EPA headquarters, which communicate almost completely by email and consistently shuttle interviews through public information officers rather than expert scientists and officials.

EPA FOIA requests by region, data from http://www.foia.gov/data.html.

EPA FOIA requests by region, data from http://www.foia.gov/data.html.

Find your region and contact office here.

Find the agency organization chart here.

What is the EPA doing to improve FOI?

Under new administrator Gina McCarthy, EPA is releasing an increasing amount of data online (see some cool resources below). According to the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer’s Report to the US Justice Department (required of all agencies), embracing digital information has led to the release of over 300,000 online records since 2012. National topics include: climate change,  lead, asbestos, and a Reduce, Reuse, Recycle initiative. EPA reported last year that only 67 FOIA requests were denied and the time for expedited processing was reduced to 6.8 days.

However, the digital side also has its pitfalls. Question 16 of the report asks, “Do your agency’s FOIA professionals use e-mail or other electronic means to communicate with requesters whenever feasible?” Yes, says the EPA; which for journalists, also means that mere email responses from public information staff often take the place of face-to-face interviews with knowledgeable scientists or officials.

Read the entire report here.

Resources

My Environment is very neat and personalized link to track air and water quality, pollution levels, energy use, and health information for a given state, city, or zip code. The app also offers comparisons to previous years and compiles the data into graphical form. The My Maps extension creates downloadable interactive maps. If you have time, be sure to click on the plus signs and “Learn more” links to find deeper information. For example, this map below displays the water quality in my hometown, and clicking on the little blue symbol reveals the name of the company responsible for the toxic releases: JCI Jones Chemicals (no relation to yours truly). The raw data is also available for download.

Merrimack NH water data from EPA MyMaps app.

Merrimack NH water data from EPA MyMaps app.

National Service Center for Environmental Publications (NSCEP). This online collection includes factsheets, research findings, and policy guidelines dating back to 1976. Documents can be downloaded for free or paper copies can be ordered if in stock and available. However only five documents can be ordered within a two-week time frame and fees might apply for requesting out-of-stock documents from the National Technical Information Service.

The Environmental Database Gateway. A metadata collection of information from geospatial and nongeospatial sources, linked to an information resource and web-based map viewer. Data can be found via a simple or advanced search and the “reuse” capability means  users can output and embed search content.

Developer CentralThis website features over forty pages of apps created by third-party web developers based on EPA data. Top apps include “Right to Know” and “EPA UV index.” Most apps include source codes, and the original datasets can be found on the “Data Showcase.”

Environmental Protection Agency Website. Explore the agency’s official site to find a list of their associated research facilities, laws and executive orders, and financial and budget information and history.

Report

Now that you have these resources, how will you use them in your next story? Tweet @amayrianne with your ideas.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley at amayrianne@spj.org or tweet @amayrianne.

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Must read FOI stories – 6/13/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • A Circuit Court Judge will decide on whether text messages exchanged between government officials need to be released under FOIA in a lawsuit filed by PETA. The first defense the city of Norfolk, Virginia, offered was that its public employees don’t save their messages, then it said there was no way of retrieving them. Maybe their next excuse will be, “The dog ate ’em.”
  • FOI advocacy groups want to close loop holes in FOIA regulations. Advocates say “agencies lack penalties for withholding information, overuse exemptions provided within FOIA and deal inconsistently and unfairly toward requesters.”
  • After 10,000 requests, MuckRock files FOIA lawsuit against the CIA. You can read all about in their editorial, “Why we’re suing the CIA.”
  • FOIA request filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveals FBI’s Next Generation Identification facial recognition program will consist of a database of more than 52 million pictures. FBI Director says he doesn’t think the agency will spy on Americans with it. (Apparently he missed the memo from the NSA.)

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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Local government emails at your fingertips, no need for public records request

This is HUGE: The City of Gainesville, Fla., has moved to make public officials’ emails available online — without the need to submit a FOIA request.

Anyone with a computer and Internet connection can scroll through any of the city commissioners’, or even the mayor’s, emails in a user-friendly database. You can search by date, specific mailboxes, or by specific words in either the subject line or body of the email. You can even export them into a ZIP file for further use.

Currently, there are over 10,000 emails searchable that date back to March. Of course, there will be some emails that won’t be available to the public that contain confidential information in accordance with state law. According to an interview between Clerk Commissioner Kurt Lannon and The Alligator, University of Florida’s student newspaper, that only applies to few emails. However, you can still view those emails by submitting a FOIA request.

I asked Lannon via email if the online email access of public officials was likely to help reduce the labor cost in fulfilling open records requests. “Yes, very much so,” he replied. The emails are automatically published to the website, except for the confidential emails that commissioners place in a “do not publish list.”

If I were a reporter in Gainesville, I would be checking the database every day for accidentally published “do not publish list” emails.


On a semi-related note, I suggested this idea of an email database to a reporter interviewing me about my open records lawsuit against the University System of Georgia. I filed suit against them last June for stonewalling and delay tactics in providing me emails. In court, their witnesses testified, and their lawyers argued, that this was the “largest request” for open records the university system had ever dealt with.

Their process for complying with an open records request for emails?

Printing out every email, reviewing and redacting them on paper, then scanning them back into a PDF file as JPEG image files (which effectively disabled the ability to perform keyword searches). This amounted to printing out a little over 12,000 pages to redact a handful of emails.

The reporter who interviewed me asked if I had a suggestion for how this process could be more efficient. Well, it seems Gainesville has come up with the solution. And they’re poised to save labor costs in doing so.

Government agencies subject to freedom of information laws need to catch up with the times. The technology is here and can make their lives easier. I would almost go a step further and say this technology needs to be legislated in other states’ open records laws.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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FOI Daily Dose: Open records threatened in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania

Arizona city suggests capping records requests that take ‘long hours’ to complete

Arizona open records laws may be under attack if the legislature passes a bill that threatens to limit the number of information requests a person can file, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. Currently, Arizona law says records must be “open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.” But Yuma City Records Coordinator Susan Alden told the Daily Sun this law requires long hours for staffers to meet multiple, broad records requests. Even so, she said there is “less need to limit the number of requests someone can submit in a period time,” and more need to allow agencies to charge for research time.

Wisconsin FOI Council calls out organization for labeling their own records private

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is challenging a national federalism and conservative public policy organization for exchanging documents with government officials through private online drop boxes and labeling its own materials with disclaimers saying they are not subject to the Wisconsin open records law, according to the Beloit Daily News.

Michael Bowman, senior director of policy and strategic initiatives for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said the organization publicizes its final policy decisions. But until then it keeps documents secret so they aren’t mistaken for final policy, the Daily New reported.

The group also uses drop box to exchange documents instead of email because it thinks drop box files are not subject to public records.

But the Freedom of Information Council scoffs at these practices, coming alongside Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy that filed a lawsuit June 6 seeking ALEC’s materials related to a Republican state senator.

“A stamp by a private non-governmental group saying the records that it shares with lawmakers are not subject to open records laws should carry no weight,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told the Daily News.  “Absolutely none.”

Pennsylvania county conceals records for controller charged with felony

A Pennsylvania county denied the Citizens’ Voice news organization’s open records request for a county controller’s email records because he was arrested on felony electronic-surveillance charges, and he allegedly violated the state’s wiretap law, according to the Citizens’ Voice.

The Voice requested copies of the controller’s emails from January to May 2013 and from Jan. 1, 2012 to April 30, 2012, but said on June 11 that they were denied by Luzerne County because the controller “is under criminal and non-criminal investigations.”

The Citizens’ Voice said it plans to file appeals to the state Office of Open Records claiming that it is implausible that all of the controller’s emails are exempt from the Right To Know Law.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett. – See more at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi

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Help us make a splash with weekly FOI profiles

Are you a reporter who goes above and beyond expectations to hold your elected and government officials accountable? Or how about a citizens group working behind the scenes to make public records more accessible in underprivileged neighborhoods?

I’d like to talk to you. Here’s why:

I didn’t know much about press freedoms until I went to a small private college in Indiana where the campus newspaper was bound by chains of censorship. As a freshman I remember flipping through the paper and finding articles that read more like press releases.

It didn’t take a trained eye to notice. Most of my friends called the paper “a joke,” and bugged me about my decision to join the staff near the end of sophomore year.

Sure, I saw the newspaper’s flaws. But I couldn’t pull myself away from conversations with some of our college reporters who felt unable to print the words they desperately wanted to say, lest the black ink on their pages turn to black marks on their records or worse, an untimely end to the paper all together.

You see, at private universities that pay for their student newspapers’ operating costs (rent for the building, computers for production), administrators technically have the final say about what can and cannot be printed and whether the paper can even exist.

But during my four years at college, my campus newspaper made a turnaround. We started conversations that leveled a campus apartment complex and renovated an out-of-code athletic facility, and just to toot our own horn once more, we were named “Journalism Website of the Year” by the Society of Professional Journalists my senior year.

All of this to say that my time as a college reporter taught me a valuable lesson. When you’re on staff at one of these private schools, you’re privy to a perspective on the free press and the First Amendment that (in my humble opinion) most journalists don’t realize until they have their first run-in with the law some ten-years into their career.

Anyway, when you’re on staff, you realize you’re working under an administration that’s always going to try to tip the scales in their favor and stop you from finding flaws in the system. (Sound familiar?) Well, as a reporter, you either dive into the deep waters and learn to swim on your own, or you stay in the shallow end of the reporting pool and print press releases. There’s really no room to wade in the waters in-between.

Now that U.S. news outlets are waking up to a similar reality with the federal government, I can only wonder: Will we reporters learn to swim on our own, or will we stay in the shallow end, clinging to our petty arguments and political ideologies like water floaties?

I’d like to think the former, but a recent article by Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian has me wondering: What is it that we— journalism junkies, First Amendment freaks and open government advocates — are actually doing to lead the grassroots fights for the free press? Are we diving into the deep end of pool, and if we are, are we sinking or swimming?

Sure, we could have a federal shield law in our favor soon. Consider that the government tossing us a water-logged noodle. We’ll still have to kick to keep our heads above water, and Greenwald says that so far we’re not really holding our own weight. We’re not claiming control of the press on our own terms, that is. Instead, we’re waiting around for the government to pull us ashore, slide water wings up our slippery arms again and help us back into the shallow end where they can keep an eye on us.

So I’m out to prove Greenwald wrong — just like I was out to show my college classmates that a private school newspaper doesn’t have to be an administrative PR tool.

As SPJ members, journalists and free press advocates, let’s not grant our government the right to decide how we report the news. Let’s ban together and claim our freedoms for ourselves.

I know from firsthand experience that it is possible. And maybe you do, too.

The rest of this summer, I’m going to write weekly profiles about ordinary reporters and citizens making extraordinary strides for free information around the country. But I’m only one person with a limited number of contacts, so to make this blog successful, I’m going to need your help.

If you know anyone (or any group) diving in and creating grassroots change or kicking against the repressive norm, share their story with me at khackett@spj.org.

Let’s make a splash to show Greenwald and our government what American journalism is really about.

Cannon balls away!

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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Freedom of Information Act’s 46th anniversary is a reminder of journalism’s watchdog role

 


Photo courtesy of National Archives

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act turned 46 on July 4, 2012.  Today’s blog contains reminders of those whose sacrifices made our access to government information possible.

For instance, Judith Miller (though herself controversial among journalists) spent 12 weeks in jail  in order to defend her right to refuse disclosure of her sources and, on a grander scale, your right to do the same.  Whistleblowers across the globe continue to expose wrongdoing, often risking retaliation or the loss of their career.   Some  journalists risk or sacrifice their lives fighting to obtain information from the government.

Journalists carry the responsibility to be the fourth estate and help keep the government accountable.

This was the case for Satbir Sharma, from India, whose wife was killed and father wounded in retributive action by their mayor, Dharamvir Malik, The Associated Press reported. The Sharma family had previously filed a corruption report against Malik using information obtained through India’s new right to know law.

Our country affords us the privilege to fight to secure additional freedoms. One example of this was seen with Utah’s infamous House Bill 477.  The bill included — among other provisions — an exemption for legislators’ text and instant messages. The bill passed and went into effect immediately.  However, the media and public responded en masse,  and Utah Governor Gary Herbert and the legislature repealed the law shortly thereafter. He and other GOP leaders in the state then commissioned a working group to address the problems with Utah’s open access laws.  Ultimately, many of the recommendations from the working group were included in this year’s S.B. 177.  A  Utah state ombudsman position and  mandatory online online training for records offices are two of the transparency measures from this bill.

Journalists carry the responsibility to be the fourth estate and help keep the government accountable. We are the beneficiaries of the tenacity of  trailblazers who showed headstrong commitment to open government and freedom of information. We need to continue to encourage the passage of a federal shield law so sources can expose wrongdoing without undue fear of reprisal or discovery.  We need to fight for more federal agencies to adopt stronger whistleblower protections. In short, we need to do more to secure citizens’ rights to government information.

Read more:

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email –  wevans@hq.spj.org –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

*Know something about Freedom of Information that you think we should cover in a blog post? We want to hear from you! Send information to wevans@HQ.SPJ.org. It may be featured in a future post.

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Mexico and Norway: Government transparency through technology

A vital aspect of success in freedom of information is the transition from the paper age to digital. While the United States was once a leader in freedom of information legislation and implementation, we still remain somewhat rooted in backlogs and delays, much of which could be solved.  The Office of Government Information Services is working to rectify this. OGIS is working with government agencies to move documents  online and make access to public documents consistent across agencies. The agency also has an online database where people can view cases that have been filed with OGIS, along with the case’s progress and results.

Two countries for OGIS to study in the move toward online transparency are Mexico and Norway. Both have already made significant progress with adapting their respective laws to the digital age.  In Mexico, where official freedom of information laws are only a decade old, there are INFO-DF and INFOMEX-DF. These websites allow interested parties in any country online access to public documents and search through previous FOI requests and the government’s response.

While it would be easy to point to Mexico’s relatively recent freedom of information laws, Norway’s public records law was implemented in 1970, with an update in 2003. Norway’s website is similar to Mexico’s, with information available for the public to access and share. They’ve also made public information available via Twitter. Additionally, the site boasts a Data hotel, where public bodies can more easily make information accessible online.

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email –  wevans@hq.spj.org –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

*Know something about Freedom of Information that you think we should cover in a blog post? We want to hear from you! Send information to wevans@HQ.SPJ.org. It may be featured in a future post.

 

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Changing the story behind freedom of information through peer pressure

In an article on changing corporate culture, strategic adviser Peter Bregman suggests the power of peer pressure to affect far-reaching change within the culture of a business .  Bregman cites a study by Leann Lipps Birch that showed children’s preferences for foods they disliked increased when they saw their peers eating the same foods.  Using this as a launching pad, he suggests the best way to change the culture of a company is to do positive, story-worthy things, or showcase those who are making positive efforts, and change the stories being told. Once people hear positive stories about their agency, they are more likely to follow suit.

We live by stories. We tell them, repeat them, listen to them carefully, and act in accordance with them. – Peter Bregman

What does this have to do with freedom of information? A look through stories in recent media shows that some public bodies and government officials are still less than excited to cooperate with the public’s demand for greater transparency and access to information. For example,  the House Committee for Government Oversight and Reform recently to investigated questionable Department of Labor policies that would affect media outlets. Additionally, committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) questioned Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the  ‘Fast and Furious’ operation.  These show public bodies need to shift from secrecy to transparency, ideally sparking a change among requesters — from suspicion to cautious trust.

However, there are still those who work to further government transparency, effectively changing the nature of the stories being told. For instance:

  • Maurice Frankel, a freedom of information expert in the United Kingdom, is using the power of peer pressure to force change in his corner of the world. In a recent article, he offered The Netherlands’ punitive measures as an example of what can be done in instances of  freedom of information violations. Adding insult to injury, FOI violators may be subject to fines of 30 euros daily for late responses to FOI requests, to be paid directly to the requester. Fines can reach a maximum of 1260 euros. Frankel adds that The Netherlands FOI laws are currently under review, so the efficacy of these punitive measures may soon be known.
  • Rosemary Agnew, Scotland’s  Information Commissioner,  is looking for ways to inexpensively train public bodies. Agnew is trying to help public bodies  respond correctly to requests when they’re first made, effectively freeing up resources in the process.  Agnew has experience with responding to freedom of information requests. She found training to be expensive, and is working to find ways to make training more affordable and accessible to all employees in the public sector.

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email –  wevans@hq.spj.org –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

*Know something about Freedom of Information that you think we should cover in a blog post? We want to hear from you! Send information to wevans@HQ.SPJ.org. It may be featured in a future post.

 

 

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