Citizens vs. Media Access

One of the ideals underlying The Virginia Coalition for Open Government's formation in 1996 was the notion that Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act was a citizens’ law, not a press law. It was the people’s right to know, not just a reporter’s right to know.

VCOG’s first director, Frosty Landon, was a newspaper man himself, but he tirelessly championed the right of individual Virginians to access government records and meetings.

Of course, a substantial chunk of VCOG’s annual budget comes from dues payments from newspapers, TV stations and radio outlets across the state, but all of our media members understand that there’s no true access to information unless it is equal access.

This may be one of those instances, though, where the reality is slightly different from the ideal.

Truth be told, sometimes the press does have different, sometimes better access under the same law. How’s that? I can think of at least four reasons.

  1. Time. A reporter’s job is to gather information for his or her story. For 40 hours a week, a journalist is interviewing people, writing, reading documents and gathering records. An individual citizen is very likely to have his own full-time job. Or, if not employed, there may be children to take care of or any number of other obligations. Filing FOIA requests and keeping track of them may be something they only have an hour or two of time for each week. It’s probably no coincidence that one of the biggest citizen-initiated FOIA investigations was undertaken by a retiree.
  2. Money. A media outlet is going to have a budget to pay for records. A newspaper or broadcast station may not be willing to pay for every records request, but routine charges can be fairly easily absorbed. Citizens with no FOIA line item in their personal budgets hail from all economic classes. Some can easily afford charges; others’ might be stopped in their tracks by expensive bills. Where this difference becomes even more pronounced is when reporters get free records (because they’re friendly with the government clerks) and the citizens get overcharged on hourly rates (possibly as a deterrent).
  3. Support system. Along with a budget, a reporter is going to have a built-in support system backing up his FOIA endeavors. Colleagues, editors and readers will encourage him and give him feedback on what to make of the records he has and what records to ask for. A citizen is often flying blind. Supportive spouses, children or friends are no doubt cherished, but they won’t have the same dedicated focus of information professionals. Many media outlets also have money (though admittedly less and less) to litigate access disputes, versus citizens, who often don’t have the extra cash to pay the filing fee.
  4. Leverage. A reporter denied records under FOIA has the power of the pen to help unloose them. The denial itself becomes the story. A citizen may be able to blog, print flyers or write a letter to the editor, but she doesn’t have the same consistent access or broad reach to convince a recalcitrant government to release records.

Media and citizen requesters also tend to have a different focus to their requests. Reporters are often looking at the big picture. They want to analyze a particular type of expenditure, or compare results/conditions across regions. They may be looking for confirmation of rumors they’ve heard, and sometimes they seek records just to round out an otherwise comprehensive investigation.

Citizens on the other hand tend to be looking at something very narrow, and something of intense personal interest to them. Certainly, others may be interested, and sometimes they may uncover their own big-picture story, but not necessarily, and not usually (going by the calls and e-mail I get).

Regardless of who is asking, personalities and relationships will play a part in the process, too. Where requesters and government are familiar with and respectful of each other, information tends to flow more easily. On the other hand, when the process gets adversarial -- no matter who strikes the first blow -- it can be more like an information trickle.

We Virginians owe a debt of gratitude to both citizen and media requesters -- not to mention helpful government employees -- who work with what they have in pursuing information. Their right to know is our right to know.

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