In Sunshine Week, US papers test FOI laws and uphold the public’s ‘right to know’. Heather Brooke reports
Information is power
Monday April 4, 2005
The first national “Sunshine Week” has just come to an end in the US – seven days in which newspapers across the country published stories, columns and cartoons about freedom of information laws and why they are vital not just to the press but to every citizen in every state.
American newspaper editors feel under threat – reporters from local government to Capitol Hill are finding it tougher to get information.
“We were very blasé about secrecy before, but now it’s on the tip of every editor’s tongue,” says Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center.
An Associated Press survey found the number of documents marked “classified” by the federal government has increased 60% in 2003 compared to 2001. And seven in 10 Americans are concerned about government secrecy, according to a poll by Editor & Publisher magazine.
In the UK, the position is very different. The public have more rights to information than ever before with the implementation in January 2005 of the Freedom of Information Act. Even so, secrecy in the UK’s new age of openness is more endemic than an American editor’s worst nightmare. A list of six “basic” public records that US journalists often use to gauge their community’s compliance with openness laws shows the chasm between the two countries.
Only one of these records – minutes from local government meetings – is publicly accessible in the UK. The rest – police incident reports, jail rosters (who is booked in and out of jail), court records, property taxes and public officials’ salaries – are not available to the British public.
Public apathy is one of the major hurdles for the organisers of Sunshine Week. Davis contends that if people are not riled up about government secrecy, it is because they do not know it exists or see how it affects them. “People would be astonished if they know how much information was being refused,” he says.
The media, in particular local media, have a civic obligation to shine a light on the activities of local councils. Too few reporters in the UK now do this. In part this is because of staff cutbacks, but also because of a mistaken belief that the public are not interested.
“The real focus of Sunshine Week was to educate the public, and to show them that open government concerns all citizens,” says Sunshine Week national coordinator Debra Gersh Hernandez. “It’s not just a bunch of journalists crying because they couldn’t get a story. People need to know about environmental hazards, if police are brutalising people or holding them unlawfully.”
It was for this reason that media groups across America focused on ordinary citizens and how they were affected by access to government information. The Idaho Statesman ran a series of articles explaining how to use public records to pick out childcare, to keep neighbourhoods safe and clean, and to check a charity’s registration. In Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlighted citizen heroes such as two mothers who used public records to find more information about disciplinary problems at their sons’ school.
Other papers highlighted stories that had only come to light through access to government information, including an investigation into a hospital emergency room reported to be turning away uninsured psychiatric patients, several of whom later committed suicide.
More than half of all US newspapers signed up to Sunshine Week, says Hernandez. The Associated Press, journalism groups, media companies, magazines and radio and television broadcasters also took part.
The cornerstone of Sunshine Week is the conducting of freedom of information audits. These can be huge – covering the entire state of Texas – or small, with a few journalism students focusing on a single issue (such as testing to see how easy it is to get documents electronically). Reporters, posing as citizens, visit school districts, police departments and local government offices to test public officials’ compliance with the letter and spirit of public openness laws.
Their findings usually make front-page news. But more than that, they lead to better laws and better compliance with the law, says Davis, who is also the author of the FOI Audit Toolkit (available to download from www.spj.org/foia_toolkit.asp).
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, thinks we could do with these audits in the UK. “It would be a good idea for papers at all levels to be doing an audit like that. We’re given all sorts of reassurances by the minister in charge of FOI, Charlie Falconer, that the law is working, but the only way to know for sure is to see how public authorities react.”
They are not reacting well, according to results from a press freedom survey released in February by the Newspaper Society. More than 80% of regional daily newspaper editors and 60% of weekly newspaper editors surveyed ranked secrecy among public bodies as of high or very high significance in the difficulties they face in everyday newsgathering.
American editors turned to FOI audits when faced with such secrecy. In 1999, a group of Gannett newspapers in New Jersey conducted an audit across 21 counties and documented what all journalists in the state knew to be true: access to public records was extremely difficult. The audit led to a strengthening of the state’s FOI law in 2002.
“What these things are mostly about is improving the status quo,” Davis says. “Audits show very graphically that we are not getting information and we need to tell citizens that this is going on. They won’t care until you put it in these stark terms.”
· Heather Brooke is the author of Your Right to Know (Pluto Press, £12.99) www.yrtk.org
Tags: The Guardian