A Big Lesson for Big Media
Rob Walters, Sean Adkins, Sharon Smith and Michelle Starr are
not household names like broadcast stars Tim Russert or Peter
Jennings. But these four ink-stained wretches in Pennsylvania are
way ahead of the big guys when it comes to digging out information
that otherwise might never see the light of day.
They work for The York Daily Record, and they've set a standard for
using the federal Freedom of Information Act that the Big Media
stars would be wise to imitate. The YDR crew routinely uses more
than 250 FOIA requests annually to break important stories for
their newspaper's readers, including:
- Homeland Security officials were so concerned about a threat to
Three Mile Island received only weeks after 9/11 that they
scrambled to get two Air Force fighters to patrol the skies over
the infamous nuclear plant, which is located not that far from York
residents. The threat described a coordinated attack by a TMI
insider and an outsider crashing an aircraft into the facility.
Even so, an hour elapsed before Washington told local authorities
and TMI managers about the threat.
- More than 140 workers and applicants for jobs in critical areas
at TMI tested positive for drug use - including marijuana, cocaine,
amphetamines and alcohol - between 1999 and 2002. Strangely, the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission lacks a zero-tolerance policy on
drugs. NRC's alcohol limit, for example is a blood-alcohol content
of 0.04 percent - equal to a 200-pound man consuming three 12-ounce
beers in an hour.
- Federal regulators documented 270 incidents of misuse of
radioactive materials that posed threats to public health and
safety in 32 states between 1990 and 2002. Among the 15 in
Pennsylvania were incidents of patients being treated for cancer at
hospitals and other medical facilities in the Philadelphia and
Pittsburgh areas. None of the incidents were disclosed before YDR
The YDR crew's FOIA-driven reporting also regularly produces
significant local stories. For instance, among more than 16,000
unpaid parking tickets, YDR discovered, were citations of the
president of the York City Council, a council member, the city's
economic development director and a host of other area
Walters, the editor who oversees YDR's FOIA reporting, says
persistence is essential. It took more than a year of effort and an
appeal to Homeland Security officials, for example, but YDR's
information request on the TMI terrorist threat eventually produced
more than 150 pages of documentation. Among other things, the York
reporters learned that TMI's reactor and radioactive core were most
vulnerable the day of the threat because the plant was being
refueled and closing a hatch opened in the process required three
Another lesson, Walters says, is that journalists always should
seek more than one way to get important information and documents.
The Pennsylvania daily's reporters routinely study an agency's FOIA
request logs to learn as much as possible about what records are
kept by that agency. Their FOIA requests then can go for specific
records known to exist within the agency.
It also never hurts to be creative in using the FOIA, according to
Walters. When a federal agency issues a report on an issue
important to the newspaper's readers, YDR reporters comb through
the footnotes for citations of surveys or databases used by the
report's authors. The raw data for those surveys and databases is
then requested via an FOIA.
And the YDR team found that governments have forms for everything.
Sooner or later, every government form is used in a report or a
database that may contain important news for YDR readers, so the
newspaper routinely submits FOIA requests for records and
supporting materials connected with government forms.
Finally, Walters says, an FOIA journalist must be patient. "Though
we work with daily deadlines and breaking news, staff members are
urged to always think long term and about follow-up stories,"
Walters writes in a forthcoming article for Nieman Reports. "From
experience, we know that an FOIA request filed today most likely
means we won't be publishing a story using the information we are
able to get for a month or even a year from now."
When was the last time you read in your local newspaper or heard on
a local broadcast newscast that an important story was made
possible by an FOIA? Surveys have long shown journalists aren't
frequent FOIA requesters. Maybe it's time to ask your newspaper
editor and TV news director when was the last time they used the
FOIA. If it's been too long, they aren't doing their jobs.
Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for
Media and Public Policy at The Heritage
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire