September 2004
Nieman Reports;Fall2004, Vol. 58 Issue 3, p65
This article deals with the significance of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to journalists in the U.S. covering the 2003 war in Iraq. According to Pete Weitzel, former managing editor for The Miami Herald who is now freedom of information coordinator for the newly formed Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, in this era of greater government secrecy more barricades have been erected that prevent access to government records by journalists. Not only has news reporting on this issue been limited and tepid, according to Weitzel, but there has been no coordinated information gathering or strategic planning about secrecy and reporters' access to information within the journalism community or among its organizations. Seth Rosenfeld, an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, describes his two-decade fight, involving three lawsuits filed under the FOIA to secure Federal Bureau of Investigation files about information the agency had compiled about those who were involved with protest activities at the University of California at Berkeley during the 1950's and 1960's. Rosenfeld's experience demonstrates that FOIA requests are most likely to succeed when they grow out of and are informed by regular reporting. York Daily Record/Sunday News reporters are encouraged by editors to make wise and frequent use of FOIA requests to supplement their investigative work. Each one, writes Rob Walters, the paper's business editor, computer-assisted reporting editor, and investigative projects editor, is a lesson in how the process works and how to use the act successfully. In the paper's coverage of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's delayed notification about the threat of a terrorist attack on nearby Three Mile Island's Unit 1 nuclear reactor and the county's grand jury investigation of the York's 1969 racial riots and murders, Walters explains how reporters used FOIA requests to bring previously withheld information and records to readers' attention.


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