December 6, 2001
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 study found.
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 Services).
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 groups.