SPJ Member Disclosure: August 2010

SPJ picks three members a month for a Q&A about freedoms, challenges and advice journalists have regarding access. The page is updated the first Tuesday of every month, so keep checking back to read the responses!

Joe Lanane, Ball State University Chapter Adviser

How would a federal shield law help today’s journalist?

We already hold each state accountable without significant fear of government backlash, but we have not been offered the same assurances at the national level. By enacting a federal shield law, more journalists could report at a national scale without fear of legal scrutiny from the U.S. government.

Do you have a story to share about how Freedom of Information has helped you?

The Ball State SPJ chapter recently conducted an FOI audit on our own Student Government Association. It was not only a great learning exercise but also allowed us to hold our student representatives accountable for their substantial financial control. After some delay, our requests were (conveniently) addressed by the school year’s end. Rest assured, however, as our findings will still be revealed to the student body this fall.

What can journalists do to ensure a bright future for Freedom of Information?

The most important thing journalists can do is utilize the rights we’re already afforded. Politicians and law enforcement agencies often need reminding of our rights, and by doing so, we ensure they think twice before conducting questionable business behind closed doors.

Carrie Buchanan, Cleveland Pro Board Member & John Carroll University Chapter Adviser

What does Freedom of Information mean to you?

Interesting question. The first thing that pops into my mind is the freedom of information laws at various levels of government that are supposed to guarantee access to documents by the public. In practice they can be difficult to use, so the term freedom of information, for me, also encompasses the training SPJ and others do to help people learn to use those laws most effectively. Finally, I believe strongly that FOI is one of those “use it or lose it” things — if we do not use the access we are entitled to, and insist on it when it’s denied, we could wind up losing it.

How would a federal shield law help today’s journalist?

It would make it possible for us to protect the anonymity of sources who have legitimate reasons for concealing their identities in connection with a story: that is, they fear violent or financial reprisals from someone involved with the story, such as losing their job or even their life.

Do you have a story to share about how Freedom of Information has helped you?

I often used public records, but only a couple of times did I have to do an actual FOI request. One of those times, someone gave me information about a man who was proposing to turn a former mine site that he owned into a huge landfill garbage dump. The dump was not yet approved, and there was a lot of opposition. Someone who had worked for this man told me he was worried about him being in charge of a landfill because he had once stored some kind of biomedical waste at his site without proper approval. I asked him where I could get documentation of this and requested the documents. However, if I recall correctly, the documents showed that the landowner got rid of the waste within 24 hours — he did receive it, but once he realized it was biomedical, he got rid of it. So I was able to shed light on this situation for people on both sides of the controversy.

The most important lesson I learned was that people who have seen wrongdoing — or something they thought was wrong — will guide you to the proof only if they trust you. You must earn their trust by treating them with respect and always keeping your word. You never know who will be helpful, so it is very important — not just as a matter of courtesy but also as a professional duty — to treat everyone with respect. It might be the person with the lowliest job, or the one with the most prestigious job, who ends up being helpful. But they’ll only do it if they think you’re a good person who will do the right thing.

Hilary Fosdal, SPJ Digital Media Committee Chairwoman & Chicago Pro President-Elect

What does Freedom of Information mean to you?

When I hear or read the phrase “Freedom of Information,” it reminds me that journalists are watchdogs and that data feeds the beast within us all. We want the facts and we want to be able to present them in a way that makes an impact with our audience.

What can journalists do to ensure a bright future for freedom of information?

As we all know, journalists have busy (major understatement) lives. We pull 15-hour days, are constantly on the move, on the phone and coming into the homes and lives of our audiences on multiple platforms. If FOI is something that a journalist is a passionate supporter of but simply doesn’t have the time to devote toward furthering the cause, I would suggest they give themselves a birthday present or Christmas or Hanukkah present and donate money to the organizations who are fighting the FOI battle on our behalf.

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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