Meet SPJ’s 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information Fellow

The government works for us.” Five simple yet powerful words, instilled in me by Boston University data journalism professor Maggie Mulvihill, changed the course of my reporting career forever.

As an aspiring environmental journalist, I had envisioned myself writing stories from the field, National Geographic style, as opposed to poring over government data and documents and sending out FOIA requests. I just didn’t know how much information was out there, and all the possibilities open to me through investigative work. After publishing a campaign finance article covering major donors in Massachusetts, I realized, the real stories lie within those documents hidden in plain sight.

Yet as I’m sure fellow reporters who have relied on the freedom of information laws can attest: It doesn’t always seem like the government does work for us. In a single semester of beat reporting, I encountered government officials who were unfamiliar with public records laws, others who took months to respond, and — my personal pet peeve — others who sought payment for running of single pages of records (not exactly feasible for a college student on a low budget).

So why do journalists continue to fight the FOIA battle, to take on these in-depth, time-consuming, painstaking processes for a single story? I can only imagine it’s for the same reason I chose to learn more about FOIA through this SPJ fellowship: The information is important. It allows journalists to fulfill their roles as government watchdogs and occasionally, to make an important difference.

My desire to motivate change is concentrated on an area of admitted lesser prominence in journalism: environmental reporting. It’s a challenging beat riddled with scientific jargon, with controversy and uncertainty, and seemingly endless reams of obscure quantitative data. My passion stems from an undergraduate education in ecology and conservation biology, complete with a study abroad experience in the Amazon rainforest and an internship in environmental education.

Although many news outlets don’t provide regular environmental coverage, the focus on the beat has been growing. Articles about oil spills in California, Texas droughts, and President Obama’s plan to “Save the Bees” dominated my news feed this week. And I suspect the need for coverage will only increase, as will the need to collaborate with the EPA, Departments of Energy and Agriculture, and other government organizations with valuable data and documents to aid in reporting.

So how does FOIA play into environmental journalism? More importantly, why should journalists care about the environment, or cover these stories in their publications in the first place? These are the questions I hope to answer during my Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information fellowship with SPJ this summer.

ashleyjones

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

 

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