Should reporters’ FOI requests be private?

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Recently, on the NICAR mailing lists and elsewhere, reporters have been debating the nuances of exactly how open open records laws should be. The heart of the question is whether reporters should have exclusive access to request responses, for a period of time, when they are the ones requesting (and often times paying for) a specific government document.

As one reporter responded on the mailing list:

Definitely need a period of exclusivity to encourage use of open-records laws. If there is none, requestors will be less willing to expend time and money to fight for the release of withheld records.

I once fought a lengthy Access to Info battle for some federal records only to have the department release them publicly and announce it with a press release. When I got home that day, I found that a courier had been and left them the documents requested on my doorstep.

So while government officials don’t always like the results of freedom of information requests, by law they can only stall so much, so often and they’ve turned to transparency as an obnoxious counter-measure against requests.

For a case study, see Chicago:

CHICAGO, May 13 (UPI) — Anyone filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the city of Chicago will now find their names on the city’s Web site, Mayor Richard Daley said Thursday.
The mayor says he’s just trying to be totally transparent, not get back at nosy news reporters, who now may find competitors privy to what story leads they are investigating.
The City of Chicago’s own Freedom of Information act homepage says that all document requests and requestors will be public, but the page appears to be down or not yet up.

Taking open access on the road

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The Society of Professional Journalists and National Freedom of Information Coalitions are hitting the trail and helping to educate journalists and citizens alike about their rights to government information. The SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee Chairman David Cuillier is hitting dozens of states over 45 days and blogging his journey:

What he’s finding, however, is a very mixed picture, particularly in terms of police department openness:

Time after time journalists are raising this issue: They can’t get anything out of police anymore. As I do sessions I ask the old timers to describe what it was like to cover cops 20 years ago. Then I ask a new reporter to describe what it is like today. Here is how it goes:

20 years ago: Walk into the police station and go to the incident reports, kept in a basket or clipboard. Flip through all the reports for the past 24 hours, with no redactions. Everything is there – name of suspects, full address, name of victims – the works. If you had a question you asked the sarge on duty, or even called the officer who handled the call. If we heard something on the scanner we could ask about it. We got news out fast and we got it complete.

Today: You walk into a police station and talk to a PIO, who tells you what the police think is newsworthy, sanitized and little detail. No looking at incident reports. No interviewing the officer or getting information from a sarge in charge. Some agencies are encrypting their scanner channels so nobody can hear what is happening. We are at the mercy of what a PIO wants to tell us, or not tell us. Secret police.

Read on for other great tips and his thoughts on the state of FOI.