The Pentagon has received more than 10,000 requests for information under the US Freedom of Information Act since 2000, but relatively few came from the news media, according to FOI logs released to a blogger.
Activist Michael Petrelis released the logs to the web site Raw Story, which reported:
The Pentagon’s records … illuminate a seeming dearth of curiosity by news organizations about the internal files of the U.S. military establishment.
This lack of curiosity appears particularly evident among the nation’s three largest newspapers.
In total, the three papers with daily circulations greater than one million—USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times — made just 36 requests of the Pentagon between 2000 and February 2005. USA Today made nine; the Journal, six; and the Times, 21.
The Associated Press, the nation’s most widely used wire service, made 73 requests. Two other AP reporters made a handful of requests not identified by their employer.
Leading print newspapers was the Los Angeles Times, with 42 inquiries. The Times recently ditched its national edition and announced last week it would lay off 85 newsroom staffers. Following the LA Times was the Washington Post, with 34—just shy of the total requests made by the three largest U.S. newspapers combined.
The largest television networks made slightly fewer requests than the top print outlets.
CBS News led the pack with 32 queries; Fox News followed with 22; and NBC News just was shy of that with 21. Fox—a frequent target of the left—filed more requests than the New York Times. CNN, the most-watched 24 hour news channel, made just 11 inquiries.
This is no great surprise; it’s well-established that while journalists make some of the most high-profile FOI requests, FOI is just too slow a process to be a routine reporting tool. Only a handful of dedicated journalists tend to make much use of it. Its’s much the same story in Britain.
The report also confirms another well-known trend in FOI use: dedicated research bodies and pressure groups make the best use of access laws.
The largest individual requestor was the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute and library based at George Washington University.
The Archive filed 895 requests, representing about 8.4 percent of the total, considerably more inquiries than the 20 largest U.S. newspapers and all major television and cable news networks combined.
Update: Justin Mclachlan is not impressed with the Raw Story report. He’s right: stories like this one that highlight how infrequently journalists use FOIA requests are missing the point. He also makes a great point about how to use the word “obtained” when talking about documents in journalism.
Update: Lots of bloggers have picked up Raw Story’s “lazy hacks” interpretation, including Atrios, Antonia Zerbisias, ICS Journal, Suburban Guerrilla, Mia Culpa, Daily Dissent. Even Editor & Publisher picked up the story, with little comment.
Journalist and blogger Justin Mclachlan seems to be alone in questioning the report:
Why do reporters seem to behind the times on this one? Because we spend our time finding assetts and working other inroads that produce documents in a much more expedient way. We develop sources through unofficial channels. Just because a request hasn’t been “filed” doesn’t mean that a reporter’s not doing their job. It doesn’t mean no one’s asked for documents, either.
Anyway saying that this revelation “provides new insight into the aggressiveness of American news agencies” is rediculous, editorial and off base.
He’s right: the Raw Story interpretation of Petrelis’s data is badly flawed, not to mention very old news. While journalists are the most high-profile uses of the law, it’s well-established that journalists make far fewer FOIA requests than people assume. A 2002 study of FOIA requests to four federal agencies by the Heritage Foundation found that less than five per cent of requests came from journalists.
It’s true that journalists should probably be less cynical about the effectiveness of FOIA requests and use the right to request information more often:
From the outset, the FOIA was considered a journalist’s tool, but journalists never have made up more than a fraction of the requesters. Most journalists either malign or ignore it. That lack of respect and recognition bewilders veteran FOIA advocates.
“Even when journalists don’t use the FOIA, it works for them,” said Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This law creates a legal presumption of openness and accountability. Given how much of a struggle it is to get access with the law in place, I can’t imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have that kind of legislative mandate.”
But the low proportion of journalists’ FOI requests has more to do with more to do with the flaws of the (slow, costly, often ineffective) FOIA request process and the fact that the vast majority of FOIA requests come from non-journalists seeking relatively uncontroversial information that is of little public interest.
An huge chunk of FOIA requests comes from people who want access to their own government files. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found that 88 per cent of the more than 4 million requests that federal departments and agencies received last year were for such personal information (PDF). This explains why the Department of Veterans’ Affairs received 46 percent of all requests to Federal bodies in 2004 according to the Government Accountability Office (PDF).
The other big secret of FOIA is that the other major source of requests is companies and their lawyers looking for commerically-useful information. The Heritage Foundation study found that companies account for 40 per cent of FOI requests to the four federal agencies they examined. Lawyers, many of them making requests on behalf of companies, account for another 25 per cent. (The same sort of thing is emerging in Britain.) One specialist consultancy that advises companies how to use the FOIA, the Washington-based FOIA Group Inc, claims to be “the nation’s largest requester of government information under FOIA”. In 1997, the Baltimore Sun reported:
“Businesses and lawyers working for businesses make the lion’s share of requests — probably close to 75 percent,” says Harry Hammitt, who publishes the FOIA newsletter Access Reports from his Lynchburg, Va., home. “I think the way the act is used is completely different from what Congress anticipated in 1966.”
Companies pay only a small fraction of the cost of their requests, making the FOIA a taxpayer-subsidized research service for industry. Last year, for instance, the Defense Department spent $35 million replying to information-seekers and collected just $952,566.11 in fees from them.
Because it is such a slow and often litigation-intensive approach, most of the real public-interest FOIA work is done by non-profits with the resources (and lack of deadlines) to pursue in-depth investigations. The Pentagon log shows that the National Security Archive was its the biggest single requester. Based at George Washington University, the Archive passes the material it obtains on to journalists and academic researchers and acts as a public interest law firm to take on key FOI-related cases to court. The stories such non-profits uncover frequently end up in newspapers when they pass documents to interested journalists.
When I spoke to him this summer, the Archive’s founder, former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong, said: “In America, journalists don’t use the Freedom of Information Act very often. And the reason is that it takes too much time, so for their daily story they can’t. The U.S. experience has been that the real work is done by non-profit organisations that are issue-oriented.”
But this does’t mean journalists are not curious — they just know that FOIA is a pretty low-percentage way of getting information. When writing for daily deadline, a document-access process that takes weeks to get a heavily-redacted response or might even require years of costly litigation is at best a sideshow to get the occasional story.
Armstrong says journalists can use Freedom of Information requests to “trim around the edges and create some structural obligations for accountability. Secrecy will still prevail in the end. It’s going to be through leaks and other things that journalists do well that you’re going to get the real dramatic information.”
Ultimately, FOIA confers a right of access on all
citizens people, not just journalists. With no airtight deadlines to meet, bloggers are perfectly positioned to make requests and publicise the results. Bloggers who think journalists are not filing enough requests should follow Petrelis’ (or Jeff Jarvis’) example and file some of their own. It’s easy.