Whistleblowers and journalism are essential for democracy

SPJ FOI Chair gives a preview of “The Whistleblower Project: A collaboration between the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project”


Ever since the Trump administration took office last year, reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico and many other news organizations have been reporting on the inner workings of the federal government. Citing anonymous and named government sources, they report on political turmoil within the White House, new policy decisions, executive orders, possible civil rights violations, scientific censorship and classified information surrounding Russia’s influence over the 2016 election.

Journalists have a long history of working with their sources to reveal essential public information and informing the citizenry. A free press is one of the cornerstones of American democracy, after all. But when government officials attack reporters or their sources and try to control the exposure of the truth, power is taken away from the citizens and that pillar of democracy crumbles.

In August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Department of Justice’s efforts to crack down on intelligence officers who reveal classified information to the public and the media organizations that report it. This included the possibility of implementing new subpoena powers, forcing journalists to give up their sources or risk facing jail time.

“We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop,” Sessions said. “I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don’t do it.”

Perhaps the policy to crack down on leakers and whistleblowers came from his boss, President Donald Trump, who has a history of raging on Twitter against government “leakers” who paint him and his administration in an unflattering light. Or perhaps it’s a continuance of the previous administration led by former President Barack Obama, which arrested eight of the 13 people who have ever been prosecuted for leaking secrets under the Espionage Act, according to The Washington Post.

There is a difference between whistleblowers and leakers — two terms that are often used interchangeably as a way of discrediting the source of potentially-damning information. Leakers release information about the inner workings of the government agency or corporation they work for, often for political gain, to curry favor, or to test policies; Whistleblowers are workers who release information that shows serious wrongdoing, mismanagement, waste or other abuses of public trust.

Both are essential for a democracy with an informed citizenry.

While whistleblowers are, in most cases, protected by law from retaliation, they are often risking their lives and careers by releasing such information. Blowing the whistle takes courage and conviction and is one of the purest examples of putting your country before yourself.

That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project have teamed up with several other whistleblowing and media organizations to inform journalists on how they can safely work with whistleblowers, and have created a comprehensive case for why those brave workers who risk everything should be praised and better protected.

Next week, SPJ and GAP are launching “The Whistleblower Project,” where people can read and listen to stories of whistleblowers who have helped shed light on corruption, government waste and corruption. People will also be able to learn about the reporters who worked with them and how these essential public servants are currently protected by a patchwork of laws, but ultimately are still vulnerable to reprisal.

The goal of The Whistleblower Project is to spread awareness and ensure that whistleblowers and the journalists who work with them are protected and supported.


Washington’s governor needs to use veto pen to make stand for transparency

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

A legislature has rushed through a bill curtailing the state’s public records act, waiving rules to minimize public comment and present the governor with a bill that has enough votes to override any veto, and members of the public are as mad as hell.

While that sounds like Utah’s infamous House Bill 477, which gutted the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, this scenario actually played out in Washington state last week.

In response to a Thurston County Superior Court judge’s ruling that lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act, Senate Bill 6617 was introduced to nullify it.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, the bill declares that the Legislature is not subject to the public records law.

While the bill does make some records public, such as lawmakers’ calendars and final actions in disciplinary procedures, it takes giant leaps backwards in transparency.

The bill renders the court battle over lawmakers’ records moot because it is retroactive back to 1889 when Washington became a state.

But wait, that’s not all.

If someone challenges a record denial by either the Senate Secretary or the Clerk of the House, the appeal can only be heard by one of two legislative committees, and the committee’s ruling is final and cannot be challenged in court.

The bill takes effect as soon as it becomes law. That negates any attempt to overturn it at the ballot box.

If you think the bill is bad, the way it was passed in the Legislature was worse.

The bill was introduced late in the session, on Feb, 21, and was put up for a Senate vote without going through the usual committee process.

Lawmakers did agree to have a “work session” where stakeholders such as the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington could weigh in against the bill, but that was not enough to stop this legislative juggernaut.

The bill passed 41-7 in the Senate on Feb. 23, and minutes later the House of Representatives voted 83-14 in favor of it.

Lawmakers defended the bill with pleas that they were protecting their constituents from having their tales of personal woes and problems exposed by prying reporters who request lawmakers email and correspondence.

Another argument that was brought up was that responding to public records requests would be too onerous for lawmakers and their support staff.

Plus, they argued that the state’s judicial branch is exempt from the Public Records Act, so why shouldn’t they.

But as Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and Allied Daily Newspapers’ Executive Director Rowland Thompson point out, the judiciary’s exemption was worked out over a course of years, with open-government advocates at the table. And the system they came up with provides an independent review of any record denial.

The bill is now before Gov. Jay Inslee, who has until Thursday to either sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

And Inslee’s getting a lot of calls to veto the bill. The Seattle Times reviewed more than 540 constituent emails it requested from Inslee’s office, and found that there were none in support of the bill. And several papers in the state, including the Times, the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Bellingham Herald and others, ran front-page editorials demanding Inslee veto the bill.

While Inslee is supportive of transparency in government, he has hinted that vetoing a bill supported by a veto-proof majority, would be futile.

No, it wouldn’t. It could stop this bill in its tracks, or at least make legislators take full responsibility for thumbing their noses at the public’s right to know.

Sure, the bill’s got more than enough votes to overturn a veto, but when the moment of truth comes, some lawmakers may question the justice of their cause when faced with overriding a veto that the public fully supports in an election year. Politicians know better than most people that discretion is the better part of valor.

And even if lawmakers stick to their guns and override the veto, Inslee will have shown the people that he values transparency, even when it is not convenient. And by doing so, he would force the Legislature to take full ownership of the bill. They were the ones who approved it, and they were the ones who made it become law, even though the public made it perfectly clear that they value transparency, just as they did when they enacted the Public Records Act through a referendum in the 1970s.

Donald W. Meyers, a reporter/multimedia journalist at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, is a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and is SPJ’s Region 10 Director


Need FOIA help?

Filed a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but ran into a few bumps? The Society of Professional Journalists wants to help.

We know the process can be challenging, frustrating and sometimes confusing. We also know sometimes your only option is to obtain services from an attorney. Now, help from a FOIA attorney is just an email away. Send the following information to foia@spj.org:

  • Your name
  • Your best contact information
  • Copy of your original FOIA request
  • Current status of your request
  • How we can help

Once you send the email, SPJ leaders will work with FOIA attorneys to connect you with a FOIA expert and resources to help.

The FOIA is a cornerstone of openness in our government; it compels federal agencies to yield millions of documents relating to government operations and performance. News organizations, scholars, and public interest groups use the FOIA to report information significant to public health and safety, and good governance.

SPJ hopes that by offering this resource, more journalists will be given the assistance they need to continue working as government watchdogs.

Lynn Walsh is a freelance journalist, creating content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News ProjectFollow her on Twitter or send her an email to collaborate on a possible project.


When Working with Whistleblowers Same Ethical Journalism Principles Apply

Government Accountability Project released a guide for journalists detailing best practices for working with whistleblowers.

“The power of whistleblowers to hold institutions and leaders accountable very often depends on the critical work of journalists, who verify whistleblowers’ disclosures and then bring them to the public,” a recently released guide by the Government Accountability Project reads.

The guide is a short read and focuses on what a whistleblower is, the laws that exist pertaining to them and tips when working on a story involving a whistleblower.

“Working with employee sources who are uniquely credible is a powerful way to access information, especially in this administration, which is clamping down on what is made publicly available,” Dana Gold, Director of Education for GAP said.

So, what is a whistleblower?

According to the guide, the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) defines a whistleblower as an employee who discloses information, internally or externally, they believe shows a violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement or waste of funds, abuse of power, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

The WPA is the primary law that protects non-intelligence federal employees. When it comes to classified information or any information barred by statute from release, the WPA only protects disclosures made to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, agency Inspector General or any employee designated by an agency chief to receive them.

Gold said she wanted journalists to know whistleblowing when the person isn’t in the national security space or handling classified information, is not a crime. According to the guide, only a small percentage of whistleblowers work in the intelligence community.

“The narrative that this kind of behavior is illegal is an attempt to chill this behavior,” she said. “You have a right to disclose this information.”

Information highlighted in the 36-page guide includes:

  • More than 95% of whistleblowers try to solve the problem internally first, often only seeking external support after the problem fails to be addressed.
  • No single law protects employees who disclose evidence of serious wrongdoing, instead, there are more than 60 federal statutes, in addition to state and local laws.
  • Asking a source directly for classified documents can put a journalist at risk of prosecution. In the guide, GAP suggests journalists be careful even describing the information and how you obtained it.

Other tips in the guide focus on how you can work better with a whistleblower. The tips, which focus on trust, honesty, and transparency, are all core elements of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Gold said the main message she wanted to reach journalists is that her organization, GAP, and others are available as a resource for the journalist and the whistleblower.

“We wanted to find a way to protect and empower both the journalist and the employees,” she said. “Journalists are the front line of the most important part of our democracy.”

To contact GAP call their main phone number 202-457-0034. The call will be forwarded to the correct person. Click here to read the complete guide [PDF].

Lynn Walsh is a freelance journalist, creating content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News Project. Follow her on Twitter and send her an email to collaborate on a possible project or hire her.


Indiana court recording remains concealed from public

The Indiana State Court of Appeals has ruled that a judge did not violate guidelines by state law or within the US Constitution that prohibited the broadcast of an audio recording during a sentencing hearing this past April.

WPTA, the ABC affiliated station in Fort Wayne, filed a motion to appeal with the Court after Huntington Circuit Judge Thomas Hakes cited a judicial conduct rule. Hakes confirmed the audio was an official record by the court but did not allow its broadcast, citing a potential citation of contempt of court.

The audio included an excerpt from the sentencing hearing of Dr. John Mathew, who pled guilty to two counts of felony sexual battery on an employee who worked at his clinic. A plea deal reduced charges from initial counts of rape, battery and sexual battery.
WPTA’s motion was supported by a coalition of groups, one of which was SPJ.

The court ruling, written by judge Patricia Riley, indicated concern on Judicial Rule 2.17, which prohibits the use of cameras or recording devices used by third parties.

“Permitting the audio of a proceeding to be broadcast to the public in general by way of any type of media, would have an intimidating impact, not only on the behavior of the witnesses and other actors — causing possible fear and reluctance to testify — but also on the openness and candidness of any trial testimony,” Riley wrote. “We perceive no difference between the effect of broadcasting a hearing ex post facto versus the contemporaneous dissemination of the proceeding.”

According to WPTA, Indiana’s lower courts bans outside recording devices, while the Court of

Appeals and the Indiana Supreme Court broadcast proceedings as they happen and archive them online.

In a telephone interview, Jonathan Shelley, news director of WPTA, said he was consulting attorneys as to whether to appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The ruling in Indiana comes a couple of days after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the public could not obtain or copy recordings made by those Court’s stenographers.

While that ruling, written by Justice Nels Peterson, does not bar court reporters from sharing recordings of court proceedings with members of the media, it gives court officials the right to turn down requests at any time, according to a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Shelley said he was not surprised by the ruling in Georgia, saying that they are working with different judges with different approaches to working with the media. Shelley adds that in Indiana there have also been differences in interpreting the release of audio of 911 calls, as city and county agencies differ on policies.

“We see varying interpretations,” Shelley said. “Some are stonewalling, some are declining, others are cooperating.”

In this case, Shelley said he was surprised that a record of the court was being subjected to a ban, as it was not a third party recording.

Shelley said that the need for transparency with the public was important. He encourages people to broaden their horizons, saying that you may not have an interest now, but you may be in a position where you have an interest in an event later.

“Something is best understood when it’s impacting someone directly,” Shelley said.
Shelley encourages journalists and news organizations also to know the laws in their area, so they can know what their up against. But Shelley encourages persistence, and says it’s possible no two circumstances can be alike.

“It allows judges and local agencies to interpret as they choose,” Shelley said. “One may put up a road block, another one may not.”

Ultimately, it is down to the access of unfiltered information, something Shelley wants to continue to promote, no matter the circumstances, in order to inform and engage audiences on issues. “Technology is only as good as the information that is available,” Shelley said.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and Freedom of Information Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.


Yes, filing a lot of FOIA requests is normal and good reporting

Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman recently wrote on her blog:

“If reputable and respected journalists respond and tell me that it is perfectly normal to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, then I will stand corrected.”

And later:

“But I do believe FOIA requests should be strategic and not just a fishing expedition. That is where the disconnect seems to be.”

Her post was in response to criticism she received over a Facebook post in which she called out a local reporter for filing a lot of FOIA requests, which she characterized as a fishing expedition.

The local newspaper the Beacon-News had been seeking the dash cam footage and internal documents related to a 2016 traffic stop, where a man committed suicide after exchanging gunshots with an Aurora Police officer, according to reports. The police department released the footage on the Facebook post months after the FOIA request was made and the Illinois Attorney General’s office intervened.

Check out the Beacon- News’ coverage of its FOIA battle and Chief Ziman’s Facebook post here

Here’s SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee Chair Danielle McLean’s response to Chief Ziman’s question of whether filing FOIA requests for the sake of filing FOIA requests is normal:

Dear. Chief Ziman,

In response to your question, whether it is normal for reporters to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, the answer is yes and is a practice that is highly encouraged. It is critical for reporters to request records routinely to learn about government functions, even if the request doesn’t entail a specific record for a specific story.

For instance, reporters often put in routine requests for public officials’ emails to stay informed about their communications, police logs to monitor police activity and arrests, minutes of public meetings that had previously entered into executive session to understand decisions and discussions that occurred behind closed doors, and campaign filings to see who may be bankrolling a politician’s campaign.

There are other examples where reporters request records that might appear as “fishing” expeditions, such as requests for databases, budgets, and investigation reports. But in reality this type of activity isn’t actually fishing – it’s observing government operations. It’s seeing what the government is up to, which is the fundamental premise behind FOIA and state public record laws, as reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sincerely,
Danielle McLean
Chair
Freedom of Information Committee
Society of Professional Journalists

 


Update: One FOIA Request Another Day

This post from guest writer Christopher Collins is an update on his efforts, which we first blogged about as part of Sunshine Week.

After six months of filing one Freedom of Information Act request each weekday, I’ve learned a lot — though not necessarily from the records I asked for.

In January, I launched One Freedom of Information Request a Day (1FOIRaDay), an open records project that aims to test the federal government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Since then, through a crash course in the FOIA process, I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of how the system works (or doesn’t work).

Some of the most important things I’ve learned are when to ask for help, where to look for resources and how to cultivate a zen-like calm in the face of FOIA-borne frustration.

I’ve learned to appreciate the FOIA officers that work to produce records instead of consigning requests to a dank dungeon of bureaucracy, as some of their colleagues do. I’ve also learned to assume the envelope mailed to me from a government agency does not contain the records I requested — rather, it’s another ransom letter saying I’d better clarify my request, or else. But before we dive into the nitty gritty, a few stats on the project so far:

  • Requests filed from Jan. 9, 2017, to June 8, 2017: 108
  • Number of requests that were fully granted: 10 (9.2 percent)
  • Number of requests that were partially granted: 11 (10.1 percent)
  • Number of requests that were denied: 7 (6.48 percent)
  • Number of requests in which the agency did not hold the records sought: 14 (12.9 percent)
  • Number of requests in which records were already publicly available: 3 (2.7 percent)
  • Number of requests in which exorbitant fees prevented access to records: 1 (0.92 percent)
  • Number of requests that have reached their logical conclusions: 46 (42.59 percent)
  • Number of outstanding requests in which the government has violated statutory response times: 46 (42.59 percent)
  • Number of agencies receiving requests: 53

As you can see, I haven’t had much success in freeing information from the government in a timely fashion. A measly 19 percent of requests have resulted in either a full grant or partial grant, and more troubling, a large minority (43 percent) appear to be at a standstill. In those instances, agencies have surpassed the 20-day statutory period in which they are required to respond to requests — many of them claiming the requests present “unusual circumstances” or are too broad.

In one case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote to say a May. 9 request asking for emails from five of its administrators to two members of the House Committee on Financial Services was too broad, despite the request specifying the names of the administrators, the lawmakers and the five-month timeframe for which records were being sought. In another case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a Jan. 19 request for data related to Legionella bacteria exposure was too broad. Even after agreeing to limit the request, I still haven’t received the records.

The Department of Justice still hasn’t provided records pursuant to a Jan. 31 request for former Attorney General Sally Yates’ emails regarding President Trump’s travel ban, even though the agency placed the request in its “simple” processing track. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has yet to produce a single page of records in connection to weekly requests I began sending on Feb. 13 for animal welfare investigations. I still haven’t gotten records from a Feb. 9 request for 12 Peace Corps Inspector General sexual assault and sexual harassment investigations.

If there’s any recourse for this type of foot-dragging, I’m not sure what it is.

On the other hand, the records I have been able to secure are pretty cool. One dataset provided by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service shows the assignment location of every FSIS employee, who usually are stationed at meatpacking facilities or similar businesses. This collection of 576 pages of CDC emails gives valuable insight into the agency’s actions before and after it unceremoniously cancelled its climate summit scheduled to take place in February. This Dept. of Energy document shows the items that have been removed from its website post-Obama.

Six months in, I’ve asked for help (like, a lot). I’d be remiss in failing to mention Syracuse University’s FOI-L listserv, which is indispensable if you’re looking for open records advice. The Government Attic can help requesters cook up new ideas for requests; The Memory Hole 2 and The Black Vault have this FOIA thing figured out; the National Security Archive is a great resource; The Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives (OGIS), which offers FOIA mediation services, does what it can to help requesters.

Perhaps I’ll have more luck in the second half of this project than in the first. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll open the mailbox to find the government has sent records instead of another obstructionist FOIA response. A man can dream.

Until then, I’ll keep filing.

You can follow the 1FOIRaDay project on Twitter or on my website. In the interest of openness, I’m now allowing public access to the Google spreadsheet I use to track requests and notate responses. The key begins at row 319. Feedback, suggestions and ideas are welcome at collinsreports@gmail.com, and if you’d like to donate to this project, you may do so here.


Christopher Collins is an independent, investigative journalist based in Abilene, Texas. His work has appeared in USA TODAY and Military Times and has been carried by The Associated Press, various daily newspapers and online news publications.


When POTUS wants journalism to be a crime, he tweets

 

Once again, President Trump has riled up journalists around the US with one of his question/statements:

Let’s unpack this for a (bittersweet) good time.

First off, POTUS would be wise to get grammatically sharper in his prose. After all, if the New York Times “disgraced the media world,” that means it did something that put the rest of the media world to shame. You know, if X disgraces Y (insert football teams you know and I don’t), then X ain’t disgraced—Y is. That’s what his words mean, anyway.

Second, did the Times get him wrong for two years that were “solid” for him, or was the wrongness what was solid? When you’re slippery with words, it’s hard to tell what’s hard ground. Maybe “gotten me solidly wrong” for two years might’ve been a better way to say that.

But that’s just nitpicky (and childish) and everyone understood what Trump meant when he asked (as he does), “Change libel laws?”

Who should change them, how they should change, why they should change is all conveniently absent in this tweet. But details aren’t the point here. Details are just details, anyway. This isn’t a real question or a real concern or even a real thought. It’s an attack on the freedom of the press—freedom from a tyrannical tweeter set on turning the people against the press. But let’s not take any of this too seriously. It’s just a question, after all.

I have colleagues who’re much more well versed in press freedom than I am, so I asked them their thoughts on this tweet.

Said Dave Cuillier, who’s the director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism:

Too bad for Trump he can’t change libel law. He can wish it to happen, but until he controls the courts it ain’t in his wheelhouse.

Said Roy Gutterman, who’s the director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech:

A difference of opinion on news or the quality of news does not suffice for a libel lawsuit.  This is why we have the First Amendment.

Right, Trump isn’t going to be flipping over hardened American Constitutional law anytime soon, but he can definitely dig into the trench of the misunderstood POTUS, the one the media just won’t stop lying about. But again: not the point. To pro-Trump Twitter users, this might signify another call to arms against the “enemy of the American People”.

For a taste of what they think, I turn to a fun new subreddit I found recently: r/asktrumpsupporters, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Here are top comments from the post asking, regarding Trump’s tweet: “Are you worried about the first amendment?”

Consequences is such a good word to end that comment with, because at the bar over a beer I’d simply ask, aren’t you worried about the consequences of a silenced, criminalized media? Cheers!

There’s always the possibility, of course, that Trump wants to loosen libel laws—the word change can go either way, right?

Here’s SPJ on the tweet, closing the loop:

Bottom line: Trump can’t change libel law. And if he was able to and did: Changing libel laws won’t stop any press from committing acts of journalism because libel is libel and journalism is truth.

 

 


Truth is Freedom

There’s little more patriotic than seeking truth and reporting it.

The future of FOIA—hell, the future of press access of any kind—may seem murky. But hasn’t that always been the case? Lest we forget, Obama’s administration was rough on access in its own way. Acts like FOIA don’t just pass at the fancy of politicians. They are born of strife, raised by dissent, matured by demands.

But we—and FOIA—are still here. The battle to defend access and the press is fought on many fronts. Some of them send back good news. Some bad. But this week, squeezed in among much smarter messages and write-ups and op-eds from men and women much wiser than me, I want to focus on a front I believe is underestimated: People give a shit about us and about journalism again.

And sure, (the President and) people are pissed at us. But it’s much easier to confront anger than it is indifference (ask anyone in any relationship, romantic, professional, or otherwise). I’d choose an accusatory, foaming mouth, fake-news-propaganda-illuminati finger from a reader over the apathy of a non reader anyday.

The onus is on us, of course, to gently point that finger down toward the copy, and repeat the truth (as best we know it). And repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat. Again. Again. Again. Truth tends to prove a monumental value to citizens of any country, even if alt facts momentarily distract some of them.

Americans know that journalism—solid, investigative, costly, subscription/ad/donation-based, unapologetic journalism—is the only way this democracy survives. Truth is freedom because lies enable enslavement. A dark government will master its people while an illuminated government usually fails at the endeavor.

Press freedoms and unhindered channels of access may come and go, but people will always want to know how the government is handling its part of the deal, the tried and tested taxation-for-representation deal. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’ll stay.

I’m not arguing FOIA fighters should sheathe their swords, or that any journos should stop pushing or caring or spitting or scuffling. On the contrary, it’s that fight I’m counting on in my optimism. The fight itself will enable its own survival. The struggle will save the long sinking institution. Its pulse will beat stronger, its blood will flow freer, its beams will burn brighter.

So to family and friends and colleagues who have accosted me recently with the question/statement what should the media do now? I answer: The same damn thing we do every day: Commit acts of journalism.

We’re not here to seek a world in which people blindly trust the media. We don’t want that world. We want readers who question everything, especially information. That’s why we attribute and prove, explain why a source is anonymous, link to documents, submit FOIA requests. We should earn trust with every story, with every line.

Journalism isn’t about arriving at absolutes—it’s about the everlasting journey towards them. Again. And again. And again. Like captains exploiting the North Star, journalists should always reach toward truth longingly, knowing full well it’ll never actually rest within their grasp.

This Sunshine Week and in all the weeks and months and years ahead, keep shining, journos. (Most of) you are doing great, and (most of) the country is grateful for it, even if (some of) it’s being an asshole right now.


One FOIA Request a Day

This post from guest writer Christopher Collins is part of Sunshine Week.
In the United States, a person ought to be able to obtain information from the federal government cheaply and quickly. It’s only fair — using our tax money, the government generates mountains of paper and electronic documents, so we should be able to get those records when we want them.

But it’s not always easy. The Freedom of Information Act, a law passed in 1966 that codifies our right to obtain government documents, isn’t perfect. And agency officials who are charged with ensuring compliance of the act aren’t perfect either. Reporters, researchers and other members of the public have shared horror stories aplenty regarding outrageous fees, years-long delays and outright refusals in response to requests for documents.

It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.

After leaving the daily newspaper business to pursue independent reporting this year, I decided to put FOIA to the test by filing one request each weekday and charting the government’s responses. I also wanted to make all information obtained through the project available to the public for free, even if it costs me a scoop.     

The project, titled One Freedom of Information Request a Day, was launched Jan. 9. So far, requests have been sent to agencies including the USDA, the EPA, the CDC, the Departments of Justice, Education and Homeland Security, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Pentagon and various branches of the military. A little more than two months in, I’ve seen signs of promise. But moreover, I’ve seen signs of trouble, such as:

  • Poor data management leading to exorbitant fees

  • Refusal of emailed requests; redirecting requests to a separate online FOIA portal

  • Coercive tactics to dissuade pursuit of FOIA

In the project’s most frustrating interaction yet, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that complying with a request for airspace hazard notifications would cost $461,300 and would take five years to complete. The notifications, which are sent by the FAA to project developers when a proposed structure is judged to impede air traffic, are an important part of the work the FAA does. When I asked why access to the dataset is so expensive, an agency FOIA officer said that the requested documents are commingled with other, confidential documents, which means the records I want would have to be individually downloaded and saved.

Strangely, the FAA offered to set me up with its database contractor, who said it could supply me with the requested documents for the low, low price of $4,275. I declined.

Some agencies — most notably the FBI — have inexplicably stopped accepting emailed requests, insisting instead that requests be submitted via physical mail or fax. The agency did not announce this abrupt change in its FOIA policy until it was made public by a requester.

I had a similar experience when requesting documents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection regarding its detainment of people from Muslim-majority countries this year. The request was emailed to the agency’s general FOIA inbox, but an automated message sent later said the account was no longer accepting requests. Instead, I would need to submit the request through FOIAonline, it said. I asked a Department of Homeland Security official about this, and he said the change had occurred “a while ago.” A subsequent probe by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found the change was never publicly announced.

Additionally, an emailed request seeking emails sent from the White House to the General Services Administration was similarly refused, citing the FOIAonline filing system.

I’m trying not to prejudge FOIAonline, which acts as the records clearinghouse for select federal agencies. Perhaps a centralized system for receiving requests and sending responses will make it easier to get records. But by its very nature, the system takes away some level of control requesters once had over their own requests and gives it back to the government.

During the course of this project, other agencies have sought to have FOIA requests droppedor delayed. After the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service was caught in a scandal by ordering its scientists to stop speaking to the public this year, I filed a request for an administrator’s emails. In short order, an agency FOIA officer called and said the USDA would give me a few responsive documents but would like to place the request on hold until I discussed the matter with a spokesman. I declined, finding later that the agency was only releasing documents that had already been leaked or otherwise released to the public.

In another encounter, the EPA implied that because some records responsive to a request I filed for pesticide exposure assessments were already publicly available, it might be in my best interest to drop the request or sharply narrow it. Agency officials on a conference call were incredulous when I insisted that they produce a cost estimate for providing the records, which is provided for under FOIA.

But the project hasn’t been all roadblocks and redirection — so far, I’ve obtained documents from the USDA, U.S. Navy and the U.S. Postal Service. And though I’m confident I’ll have more curveballs thrown my way, hopefully this will be a worthwhile exercise in democracy. Let me know if you have any ideas for future requests or ideas on how to make this project better. I want your input! Send a message to collinsreports@gmail.com or DM me on Twitter @collins_reports.


Christopher Collins is an independent, investigative journalist based in Abilene, Texas. His work has appeared in USA TODAY and Military Times and has been carried by The Associated Press, various daily newspapers and online news publications.


Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ