March 13, 2017

Journalists will probably have to fight harder than ever for access to government information under the Trump administration, according to a new survey of 336 freedom of information experts published Monday.

Nine out of 10 experts surveyed predicted that access to government information will get worse over the next four to eight years, according to the report, which was produced by David Cuillier of the University of Arizona for the Knight Foundation.

“I think it’s going to be a backyard brawl,” Ted Bridis, investigations editor for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C., told Cuillier.

The findings are discouraging given the already depressed climate for freedom of information under the Obama administration, which set a record for unfulfilled Freedom of Information Act requests. Although President Obama promised transparency, the effects of this alleged era of openness were slow to catch on throughout his administration, which dragged its feet in many cases, according to the report.

Related Training: Access Denied: Your Rights When Government Shuts Media Out

A number of factors contribute to the gloomy forecast outlined by press freedom experts in the report. For one, respect for the press is at an all-time low, and politicians have exploited public fears of invasiveness to deflect probing inquiries, according to the report. Depleted finances at news organizations make them less able to vigorously pursue records, and the industry’s high turnover rate make a sustained fight difficult.

Red tape, lack of enforcement, waning political will and outdated technology also contribute to the surfeit of unfulfilled Freedom of Information Act requests, according to the report.

Press freedom advocates are also melancholy about the progress of information freedom over the years. About half said that access to state and local records has gotten worse over the past four years. About 40 percent said access to federal records has gotten worse.

“What I hear from reporters in Washington and my students is that exemptions are being used in way too many cases and delays are still very long,” Leonard Downie, former Washington Post executive editor and current Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, told Cuillier “I hope the door doesn’t get shut tighter.”

The study was released during Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government in the United States. The report points to several remedies for the situation, including increased training for government officials, requiring the government to pay the fees of news organizations who successfully sue for public documents and additional fines, according to the report.

Last year, in advance of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, President Obama signed into law a bill that codified a presumption of openness for government agencies holding public records.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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