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One way journalists can make a difference
is by using FOIA to protect right to know


by  Stan Zoller
One of the interesting things about starting a school year is to find out why students are taking “J-1” – Introduction to Journalism.  The answers, to no surprise, run the gamut.

• “Because my friend did.”
• “Because my parents made me.”
• “Because I like to write.”
• “Because I’m interested in journalism.”

First in a series of Wednesday blogs

The post on FOIA is the first in a series of blogs that will run each Wednesday. Topics discussed, in order, will include FOIA, news literacy, journalism education, positive relationships with administrators, prior review, Making a Difference and private school journalism. We hope you will enjoy them. If you have other topics you feel we should address, please let us know.

Bravo. However, whether a student has friends in the class, persuasive parents or (fortunately) have an interest in journalism, one thing that students need to know, and it is incumbent on journalism educators to emphasize, is that journalists can make a difference.  Even scholastic journalists.

The motto of the Chicago Headline Club, the Chicago chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, is “Protecting the public’s right to know,” and its message is not limited to professional journalists.  Its message is meant for student journalists whether in college or high school.

While journalism educators stress the Common Core and awards to their administrators, what’s paramount is that students understand their role as journalists, not just “student journalists.” I’ve heard from more than one adviser that they’re changing their newspaper to a news magazine because they’re not reporting news.

Then something has gone amuck. While their publications may not feature “breaking news” more and more newspapers are being sought out for their work as watch dogs and are, more than more are “protecting the public’s right to know.”

So what do students, and perhaps journalism educators, need to know?  That despite roadblocks that some administrators will put up to protect their own personal goals or initiatives, information is readily available to student journalists – just as it to all journalists.

The Freedom of Information Act is not limited to professional journalists.  Your student are afforded the same rights.   Using the FOIA may seem tricky, but it is a fairly simple process.  The Student Press Law Center makes the process simple.  All you need to do is go to SPLC FOIA Instructions.

Keep in mind you should be as specific as possible.  Do not, for example, say you want to review the budget for 2013.  Narrow your focus.  If you are interested in an athletic team’s budget, indicate that you want travel expenditures for the Central High School football team from Aug. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2013.

Remember too that you can use the FOIA to obtain information from other agencies.  Nearly all public records are accessible by the FOI.  This includes police reports, school board information, birth records, divorce information and property transfers to name a few.  There may be some limitations as to what some agencies may release.  For example, police departments may not release reports involving domestic disputes, sexual assaults or minors.  If there’s a dispute, you can refile your FOIA request, or if need be, state offices will review your FOIA.  In Illinois for example, the Attorney General’s office has procedures to for FOIA reviews.

It is a common practice for names and addresses to be redacted (crossed out) to protect non FOIAed individuals.  That’s because they may be outside the request of your FOIA request.

In many cases, an organization has a limited time in which to respond.  In Illinois, an organization must respond  by email or letter within five days.

Once the information is received, you and your students need to evaluate it and see how it will be used, which will be addressed in my next blog.

In the meantime, check your state guidelines for using the FOIA and include it in your lesson plans.

It may not be a popular action to take with your administration, but in addition to expectations of journalism mirroring the Common Core and 21st Century Learning standards, administrators, journalism educators and student journalists need to understand a primary, perhaps the primary role of the media today is, in fact, “protecting the public’s right to know.”

About the blog: In addition to the 5 Ws and H, journalists need to understand where and how to find information.  This repeating blog focus will address techniques, issues and examples of accessing public records using Freedom of Information and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

About Stan Zoller:  Stan Zoller, MJE has been a journalism educator for 15 years.  Before that he worked as a journalist and media relations professional.  He is Vice President of Freedom of Information for the Chicago Headline Club, the nation’s largest local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  He was a DJNF Special Recognition Adviser in 2010 and Distinguished Adviser in 2011.  He is a member of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission and the Multicultural Commission.

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