September 26, 2016

A recently published article asks whether the news media is keeping up with challenges surrounding freedom of information in the digital age.

While there is no doubt that journalists and news organizations are facing a variety of challenges when it comes to access to government information, a number of organizations are working to address those challenges — and delivering results.

A prime example is the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which has been a powerful force in protecting and improving freedom of information. This year, that coalition was credited by lawmakers as being “critical to the success” of amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act that bring important updates to the law on its 50th anniversary.

Special credit goes to the AP for its outsized role in the initiative, in whose work it has invested more than $1 million over the past 10 years.

At the Reporters Committee, our pro bono litigation project, now two years in the running, was undertaken with the specific purpose of addressing the need for access and freedom-of-information work at the state and federal levels across the industry.

Our attorneys are representing an online data journalist seeking access to an important federal travel database, helping reporters in Oklahoma obtain information on a botched execution and leading a case on the FBI’s impersonation of journalists. We successfully championed the unsealing of documents related to the sentencing of Gen. David Petraeus, as well as documents and proceedings in criminal prosecutions of Columbian paramilitary leaders. And we just won a landmark victory in a federal appeals court on public access to grand jury transcripts.

News organizations receiving free litigation services from Reporters Committee lawyers include the AP, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox News, Hearst, Time, Dow Jones, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Politico, Scripps, Bloomberg, First Look, Univision and McClatchy Newspapers, as well as nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica and 100Reporters.

The Reporters Committee has also maintained its place at the forefront of the evolution of FOI laws through its police bodycam project, a comprehensive resource on laws and policies concerning the right to access police videos. We also developed iFOIA, a digital portal for records requests.

Other organizations are also rising to meet the challenges of access to public records, including the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School, the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, the Civil Beat Law Center in Hawaii, and the First Amendment Coalition in California, to name a few.

Ensuring access to government information is and has always been a Sisyphean task, and it’s absolutely correct to say that the news media needs to collaborate to meet the challenge. We’re proud to be a part of that effort now and in the future.

Boardman and Brown are respectively the chair of the steering committee and executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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