It’s All Journalism: Time to Bring FOIA Into the Digital Age

It’s All Journalism is a weekly conversation about the changing state of the media and the future of journalism.

The world was a much different place in 1966 when the Freedom of Information Act became law.

FOIA is “starting to get a little rough around the edges. … It’s in need of a tune-up,” said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the American Society of News Editors. “When the law was passed in 1966, it was a vastly different age. Now we really have to make sure we’ve updated the law for the digital age and to take advantage of the digital.”

FOIA remains an incredible tool, not just for journalists, who make up a small portion of people who file requests for information under FOIA, notes Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative. It’s a tool anyone can use to bring vitally important information to life and provoke change.

Just look at some of the reporting done this year, with help from documents obtained via FOIA requests, which have widespread implications, Blum and Goldberg note.

“If you look at Flint, Michigan, and the water crisis there, we know the EPA was dithering with the state and locals because of FOIA,” Blum said.

Of course, documents obtained by FOIA can result in revelations that are uncomfortable. “It may be uncomfortable for the public to hear, (the articles) may be uncomfortable for the journalists to write. I’m sure they are uncomfortable for people releasing some records. … (But) it’s a good government tool in a democracy. You can’t really oppose transparency in government,” he said.

Building on FOIA, the ASNE kicked off the annual Sunshine Week more than a decade ago, and each year participation in Sunshine Week grows. “You can guarantee for one week a year people are focused on FOIA. I wish it were more, but for at least one week a year, even legislators are focused on FOIA,” Goldberg said. That attention often brings up discussion on how FOIA can and should be changed, including ways to make FOIA more applicable and useful in the digital age.

For starters, there’s a bill in both the House and Senate that would modify FOIA to make government agencies respond to FOIA requests “from the presumption of openness,” Blum said. “That seems ridiculous that you have to do that, it’s already there (in the law) … but this would tell agencies you have to start with the presumption of openness.”

The proposed legislation also would help modernize FOIA through the use of a portal that would allow people who file a FOIA request to track its progress through whichever agency is being asked for information.

“It’s sad that we’re in 2016 and talking about having a way to track your individualized FOIA through the system,” Goldberg said. “The portal would allow me to do more: it’d allow me to request (information) from there, it would allow me to look at other searches so maybe I don’t have to request. Ideally, it would allow me to interface with the agency on a more regular basis,” something that he already can do with his doctors, accountants and other holders of highly personal information with just a few clicks.

On this week’s It’s All Journalism, producers Michael O’Connell and Nicole Ogrysko talk to Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, and Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the American Society of News Editors, about legislation making its way through Congress that will update the 50-year-old Freedom of Information Act.