Got Freedom of Information? If Not, Let Us Know

Freedom of information was one of the topics under discussion at the ASBPE national conference.

At the conference, Ted Gest and Douglas Clifton were panelists at a freedom of information session. Gest is coordinator of the Council of National Journalism Organizations, which represents journalists in such matters. (ASBPE has been a member of CNJO since 2003.) He’s also president of Criminal Justice Journalists. Clifton is editor of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer and former chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information committee. Boston chapter board member and new national president Roy Harris moderated the panel.

Gest says the plethora of journalism groups in existence has been a good news/bad news situation. The good news: There are lots of groups representing all sorts of publications. The bad: The diversity resulted in a splintered coalition, at best. There was not one group to go to when, for example, problems accessing public records started coming up at a wide spectrum of publications. As a result, journalism groups were losing many battles. Giving journalists a unified voice on this and other issues is one of the main reasons CNJO exists.

One issue that CNJO — and ASBPE — has been involved in: The Federal government was proposing a new category of information, Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU) (12KB PDF download). Under its proposal, state and local officials would be liable to prosecution for giving out SBU information. ASBPE, as part of CNJO, signed onto a document requesting that there be public hearing before putting this new category into place. A year and a half later, the Sensitive But Unclassified designation still hasn’t been issued as a rule.

It’s commonly noted that information is tightly controlled in this post-9/11 world, and Gest says he’s noticed the change. When he was with U.S. News & World Report, his phone calls to government officials were always returned. Now that’s not the case. But Gest points out the close-lipped attitude extends to issues completely unrelated to national security. For instance, the Justice Department is working with 19 states on a national online registry of sex offenders, but will not release the names of the states involved to the press.

Gest notes that since Sept. 11, 2001, 36 public web sites have been shut down. In many cases, information no longer published on the Internet is still obtainable in person from the government agency in question. But as Doug Clifton points out, there’s a “practical obscurity” issue when information isn’t online. For example, it could be nightmarish to develop property ownership history by using paper records; it would take hours and hours of work. On the computer, the same task might take 20 minutes. Having information on the Net vastly increases a reporter’s ability to do probing investigative reporting.

Then too, even getting information in person can be tough. Doug Clifton tells how newspapers across Ohio, together with the Associated Press, performed an audit of Ohio’s open-records law. They came up of a list of records anyone — not just journalists, but average citizens — should be able to get with no questions asked. That included such information as the salary of mayor or city manager, town budgets, and arrest records. Then they organized an army of testers who asked for the records — without saying they were reporters — to see if they would get them.

The result: There was only about 50% compliance. Problems ranged from reporters not being able to get the documents they wanted to officials demanding ID (which is illegal) or insisting on a waiting period. (For tips on getting FOIA records faster, visit

All the newspapers involved published results of this test on the same day, embarrassing at least some state and local governments into giving reports more easily. But Clifton says the moral of the experiment is this: It behooves you as a reporter to know the intricacies of your local freedom-of-information laws.

If all this sounds far-removed from your day-to-day problems, consider this: During the panel discussion, ASBPE associate director Robin Sherman brought up the example of a trade publication, Mine Safety & Health News, that has had problems getting information on mining inspections. (ASBPE members can also see the article “Mining for Information” from the November/December 2004 ASBPE Editor’s Notes.) Another example: Last year, when Tasia Scolinos of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security spoke at the ASBPE conference, she encouraged editors to write articles on how well prepared for disaster the industries we cover are. Yet when a member who was at the conference got back home and tried reporting on those vulnerabilities in her industry, she never got responses to her requests for information from the Homeland Security office. Issues have come up in the transportation industry, the health and IT industries are affected, and of course any publications that cover defense, aerospace, or related industries, are, too.

Ted Gest closed his remarks at the conference by telling the audience: “We need your help in all this.” He urged editors to make sure that if they are running into information-access problems, CNJO and ASBPE leadership know about it. “Even if it seems like it’s a trivial example, it’s all part of a pattern, so it’s important,” Gest said. Contact Gest at or 202-448-1717, or Roy Harris at