FoI frustrates journalists, report finds

Journalists find using the Freedom of Information Act useful for historical and investigative stories, but have also found the process of using the law “frustrating” according to a new study.

Researchers from the Constitution Unit, a think tank at University College London, found that some journalists from both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers had experienced “significant disappointment” with the process of getting answers to and appealing requests.

Nine leading journalists who took part in the study complained of “delays, liberal use of exemptions and long waits during review and appeal processes”.

“The absence of an effective appeal system that works in a reasonably timely fashion is at the root of journalists’ cynicism regarding the Act,” says the researchers’ report, which is published in the current edition of the journal Open Government.

Constitution Unit director Robert Hazell said: “The media are the conduit through which much of the public learns about FOI, therefore, what they choose to publish is important. The problems journalists experience with the administration of the Act are not necessarily unique to them – the Act is fairly new and still bedding down.

“It remains to be seen, if and when new fee proposals are implemented, whether journalists will feel the brunt more than others.”

The report concludes that while most journalists said the Act had
“made little difference” to their everyday reporting, it was widely
remarked that journalists are “slightly better off” because they now
had another method of gathering official information.

The
journalists who were most positive about the law were investigative
reporters who were not working to daily deadlines. Some of these
journalists told the researchers the law had made a “noticeable” or
“huge” difference to their ability to obtain information, particularly about historical or statistical information.

A content analysis of 602 FOI-based stories published by national newspapers in 2005, found that the Guardian and Times were the heaviest users of the Act, with each accounting for 15 per cent of the the stories. The Sunday Times accounted for a further 12 per cent of stories.

One-fifth of the FOI stories concerned costs or expenses of public bodies’ activities or institutions’ rules and procedures. Stories about performance measures accounted for 10.7 per cent of the stories, and historical information figured prominently in 9.4 per cent.

However, the study found that journalists’ use of FOI requests had declined as the novelty of requesting information has worn off since the Act’s introduction at the start of 2005.

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