FOIA Panel at ASNE: ‘Sunshine’ Barely Breaking Through Clouds

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By: Joe Strupp

While praising the annual Sunshine Week as a positive tool for promoting open records access, a panel of newsroom leaders at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference Thursday stressed that the fight for such access has become more difficult than ever.

The editors, several of whom are involved in ASNE?s Freedom Of Information Act committee, stressed that more needs to be done to keep and gain such access, and inform a skeptical public about why.

?We have our work cut out for us,? said Andy Alexander, Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and chair of the FOIA committee. ?We are going to have to work harder and be more creative.? Alexander cited a report out Wednesday from the National Archives that showed some 25,000 historical documents classified since 1999 did not contain sensitive information.

Still, he said the Sunshine Week effort, which occurred again earlier this year, has been a strong tool in the campaign to keep and expand public access. He pointed out, however, that the emphasis must occur year-round, and editors are key to the movement. ?In most newsrooms, Sunshine Week is celebrated, but then forgotten about the other 51 weeks of the year,? he said.

Thomas Heslin, managing editor for new media at the Providence (R.I.) Journal, agreed, stating ?there is a need for relentless leadership? and that ?freedom of information laws are not self-implementing.?

Others on the panel, such as Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, said one of the best ways to keep up the fight is to seek access and fight efforts to block it. ?We have been involved in 30 different legal cases in 2005 alone,? she told the room of editors. ?To pry into records and keep cases open.?

Carroll offered other proof that restrictions are being increased, noting that since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 3,500 proposals have been made to change access laws at all levels of government, with 616 implemented to tighten access, while only 284 have loosened it. ?So we?re not doing too great,? she said.

She admitted that legal moves to challenge opposition can be costly, but stressed the overall return on them is worth it. ?It is expensive, we spent several thousands of dollars on just getting the list of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay,? Carroll said.

Alexander cited the way some agencies can refuse access to purposely get you to take legal action, run up legal bills, than release information just before a trial to avoid paying the legal fees. But he cited legislation in Congress that would force them to pay even in those instances. Heslin, meanwhile, said most of the problems do not come from major federal agencies, but from smaller local outlets.

?It is the lower-level police report where someone has in mind that they are doing the public good,? Heslin said. ?That is where our biggest issue is ? encountering people who feel they have some control over what is disclosed.?

Carroll added that AP makes the free flow of information one of its standing goals. She noted the creation of a weekly ?Beat of the Week? contest that rewards the best example of a scoop, be it a story, photo, or even piece of video or film. ?Part of the nomination is how you got the story, how you used FOIA and it describes how the journalist got the scoop,? she said, adding that a $500 prize is given to each winner. ?It is a great teaching tool ? you learn every week how someone can break open a scoop.?

Another panelist, Pat Yack, editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, said his local organization, the Florida Newspaper Editors Association, actually hired a lobbyist to seek open records laws and to block efforts to tighten them. ?Every year, we try to do something different,? he said, noting an annual FOIA audit the group has conducted for the past two years, in which it files requests for information in numerous public offices. ?It is amazing the feedback you get from very simple things.?

At the San Jose Mercury News, executive editor Susan Goldberg took the effort to another level earlier this year, actually working with the paper?s attorney to draft an open records access ordinance for the city. Goldberg was slated to be on the panel but had to return to her paper following its announced sale on Wednesday.

But Carole Leigh Hutton, vice president/news for Knight Ridder, which still owns but will soon sell the Mercury News, spoke up from the audience about the ordinance. ?Some of the journalists, particularly City Hall reporters, thought that the Mercury News was inserting itself into the very divisive mayoral election,? Hutton said, adding that the ordinance is still under consideration. ?But Susan felt very committed to be doing it.?

In almost every case, the panelists agreed that informing the public about the need for open records, not only for reporters but for citizens, is a key toward improving the access.

?The vast majority of FOIA requests are filed by individual citizens, not by journalists,? Carroll said. She added that if journalists explain to readers why they want access for news value and not to ?muck around in their divorce records, which is what a lot of them are afraid of,? they will be supportive. Yack agreed, saying ?the biggest concern is that we need to talk about why we do it.?

Alexander pointed to the recent push in some jurisdictions to keep private the cause of death in many cases. He said citizen reaction is often based on how they perceive the information.

?If you have a family member dying of AIDS, that is a great concern to you,? he said. ?But if you are a citizen who wants to monitor the issue of toxic dangers, you want to know.?

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