WASHINGTON, Dec. 6,
2001-Journalists appear to be among the least frequent users of
the federal Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees public
access to most government records, according to a new study by The
Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy.
A mere 5 percent of 2,285 FOIA requests submitted during the
first six months of 2001 to four federal agencies were from
individuals identifying themselves as journalists, the Media Center
Corporations submitted 40 percent of the requests, while lawyers
and individuals not identifying their employment accounted for 25
and 16 percent, respectively. Individuals representing non-profit
advocacy groups submitted 8 percent of the requests.
The study examined official logs of FOIA requests submitted
between Jan. 1 and June 15 to the U.S. Departments of Education and
Transportation, as well as the General Services Administration,
Environmental Protection Agency and the Health Care Financing
Administration (since renamed the Center for Medicare and Medicaid
None of the agencies responded to the Media Center's request
within the 20 working days allowed by the FOIA. The four agencies
that provided the requested data did so only after repeated
telephone calls and letters. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid
Services promised but never provided the requested information.
"These results are consistent with previous studies that found
journalists among the least-frequent users of the FOIA, but that
doesn't change the fact the people who often complain the loudest
about alleged violations of the law don't use it that often," said
Mark Tapscott, the Media Center's director.
"As a former newspaper journalist, I find it particularly
curious that the EPA, which is arguably the most controversial
federal agency, got the lowest percentage of FOIA requests from the
media," Tapscott said.
"I don't know why journalists should be any less skeptical of
EPA pronouncements than of any other government agency, regardless
of who is in the White House or which political party controls
Congress," Tapscott said.
A partial explanation for the paucity of media FOIA requests may
also be found in the declining number of reporters assigned to
cover federal agencies, Tapscott said, citing a recent survey by
the American Journalism Review.
Bureaucratic delays also discourage media use of the FOIA,
according to Rosemary Armao, managing editor of the Sarasota
Herald-Tribune. "Ask any journalist who does use the act, and you
will hear horror stories," Armao told the Media Center.
The Media Center study also quotes Rebecca Daughtery, FOI
director for the Reporter's Committee for a Free Press, Paul
McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, and Jane
Kirtley, media ethics professor at the University of Minnesota.
Among the possible explanations cited by those three experts for
the low number of media
FOIA request: journalists' ability to get needed government
information without using the public access law, the growing use by
journalists of Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting techniques
in analyzing government databases, and journalists benefiting from
FOIA use by individuals and non-profit ideological advocacy