One of the most entertaining sessions at the Documenting Leadership symposium centered upon journalists’ use of government records. The panelists were sharp, funny, and expressed a range of perspectives. A number of themes came to the fore:
A reporter’s background knowledge is indispensable. Mickey Carroll (Quinnipiac University Polling Institute) emphasized that most reporters don’t have time to sift through records. They do broad reading, cultivate reliable sources, and draw upon their knowledge of the players and their context-- which takes young reporters a long time to develop -- in order to make sense of the tidbits of information they find.
Records are the lifeblood of investigative journalism. Sandra Peddie (Newsday) asserted that as investigative reporter, she has both the time to file freedom of information requests and the obligation to “get things right.” Government records were at the coreof her exposes of state pension system abuses and the inner workings of some of Long Island’s “special districts,” and she’s currently fighting to obtain records documenting the inner workings of the office of Suffolk County Executive (and gubernatorial candidate) Steve Levy. Ethan Riegelhaupt (New York Times), whose employer has the resources needed to sustain in-depth investigative journalism and mine government databases, concurred, as did Peter Elkind (Fortune), whose biography of Eliot Spitzer relies heavily upon records that illuminated the complexities of his subject’s political decisions and motives.
The needs of government and the press sometimes conflict. Riegelhaupt noted that as former government counsel, he understood that officials need space to determine policy and that closed-door meetings are sometimes necessary; as a newspaper attorney, he also recognized the need for access to information. However, Elkind stressed that although we seem to have reached a point where day-to-day, intense coverage of politics has gotten in the way of getting things done, officials are responsible for running the government and reporters are responsible for unearthing and disseminating information about government.
Proactive disclosure is a good thing. Noting that President Obama has directed federal agencies to disclose federal records in anticipation of receipt of freedom of information requests, Mark Mahoney (Glens Falls Post-Star) asserted that he wanted to see state and local government do the same. Moderator Rex Smith (Albany Times-Union) also endorsed this practice, which may sometimes displease journalists: the city of Chicago has just started posting summary information about all of the freedom of information requests it receives, and as a result the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times can no longer hide their probes from one another.
Freedom of information laws aren’t perfect. Elkind was stunned to discover that the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) permitted the withholding of records that, in his view, should have been disclosed and that the law doesn’t cover legislative records. Caroll noted that the law itself may have had an inhibiting effect: prior to FOIL’s enactment in the 1970s, many government officials were actually more willing to share records with reporters than they are now.
Journalists are still trying come to terms with the new information ecosystem. Riegelhaupt noted that everyone is still grappling with the implications of having ready access to vast quantities of information and to the perspectives not only of officials and reporters but also of millions of other people. Mahoney noted that in this environment, engaging readers on a personal level -- via blogs such as his (highly recommended) Your Right to Know -- is essential. Riegelhaupt emphasized that the changes are going to be even more profound: newspapers and other media outlets can now publish the texts of officials’ speeches, copies of government databases, and large quantities of other government records. As a result, their Web sites will both serve as the first draft of history. Peddie noted that when newspapers put electronic government records on their Web sites, these sites become important public access points. As a government archivist, I have concerns about ceding this role to the media, but I also understand that the media also has an interest in providing authentic information and that most people will view media sites as sufficiently trustworthy.
Archivists must also come to grips with this new ecosystem. Smith and Riegelhaupt mentioned in passing that archivists are going to have to grapple with whether and how to preserve Web sites, blogs, and other new information resources. As New York State Archivist Chris Ward pointed out, the New York State Archives is working on it -- and so is the profession as a whole. Not surprisingly, journalists also want faster, easier access to the records that archivists have. Mahoney stressed that reporters really appreciate ready access to digitized records: they’re a big help to people who have tight deadlines, and they enable readers to evaluate the quality of reporting. We’re working on that, too -- even if scarce resources force us to move slowly than anyone would like.