September 27, 2004

September 27, 2004 | Commentary on Legal Issues

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 reported them
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 officials.

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 hours.

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 Foundation (heritage.org).

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