Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

People want more government transparency, traditional media less likely to sue to get it

Aug. 24, 2011, 4:44 p.m., Posted by Andries Vaisman

 

Though declining resources have left the media less likely to investigate cases in which freedom of information has been limited, more and more people are supporting government transparency says a new study put forth by Media Law Resource Center and the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

The findings – though bittersweet – compliment a 2009 investigation that found that traditional media support for open government lawsuits in their states had fallen dramatically. They also give new meaning to Knight’s FOI fund, which helps state groups pursue open-government litigation by covering up-front costs such as court fees, if attorneys are willing to take on a pro-bono basis cases that otherwise would go unfiled.

“If ordinary citizens are becoming more aware of their access rights, and more assertive regarding them, it is indeed a reason to be gratified,” said Kenneth F. Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.  “However, if news organizations are trending toward being less gung-ho in an area once regarded as a matter of responsibility and stewardship, there is the frightening potential that journalism could suffer, as could the health of our democracy.”

The study, conducted through online surveys of FOI member coalitions and media lawyers, indicates an increased number of open government violations and an overall decrease in news organizations’ likelihood to bring information compliance lawsuits before state and federal courts.  Data also revealed, however, that citizens are more likely to take up these cases, with 41 percent of media attorneys surveyed and 46 percent of NFOIC members saying that open government lawsuits brought by non-news organization activists had increased over the past five years. 

This contrast carries over to government agencies as well, with slight increases in government officials’ understanding and compliance with requests for records and information further offsetting the increased number of open government violations observed in recent years.

To learn more about the study’s implications, including the perceived impact of Knight’s FOI fund, read the official release.  For more on how Knight’s Journalism and Media Innovation program advocates more transparent government practices to promote informed and engaged communities, check out knightfoundation.org.