Freedom of Information: 10 Tips for Journalists

20 09 2010

As mentioned on our previous blog, Brighton Journalist Works is very lucky to have Matt Davis teaching for us. He is recognised as one of the UK’s leading experts in FoI. Here are his Ten Top Tips for success:

Tip OneThrow away your cynicism

People constantly moan about the tentacles of the state reaching into the dark corners of our private lives and the Government meddling in areas of our existence that they never before had any influence over. But what is recorded by the “everything in triplicate” bean counters means the data is out there that we can get access to.

Some rubbish the Act, saying it only has effect over the public bodies – yet ignore the fact that every interaction between private business and public authorities is potentially up to be released.

Tip Two: Think of the story before you think of the question

Don’t just strafe the authorities with random questions hoping that one of them might hit the target. Think of the story you would like to publish and then track back to who would hold the data that would allow you to write the story and how best you can get hold of that data. Sometimes boiling your desired story down to a headline is the most effective way of doing this.

“Our worst hospitals” was a fair summary of a story that showed how a small sub-section of our hospitals have to pay extra insurance premiums, just like an accident prone teenage driver, because they have such a bad record on health claims.

Tip Three: Immerse yourself in the statistics and the language of the organisation you are requesting information from

There are countless examples where the authority needs to be asked the question in a language that it understands rather than the bar room journalese that we communicate with. Then of course we have to establish which organisation holds the data we want and in what format that data might be held.

Tip Four: Avoid overcomplicating the question

The best questions are the shortest and the simplest. When you phrase a question and you are on to part seven you are really already three sections too long. Think about what you are going to do with all the data if you get it all back.

Tip Five: Always ask for comparative data

If you are after the number of teenage gun victims in the last year you really need figures for previous years to put the statistics into context.

If the answer to your question is likely to be a relatively small number, such as the number of police officers thrown out of their force for stealing or the number of diplomats who claimed immunity from prosecution – give the authority the opportunity to give you more information. Ask them to provide a brief summary of each case – and quite often they will! This provides you with much-needed colour in a story which could otherwise end up as a collection of numbers.

Tip Six: Ask for sections of documents and reports

If you are after a report or a document that you think the authorities will try to stop you having, make it difficult for them by asking for sections of it that you know will probably be uncontroversial. For example ask for the index or the chapter headings – these will almost certainly be releasable and then you can direct your fire on to the sections within the report that you are most interested in.

Tip Seven: Develop an obsessive interest in the work of public sector employees

Become an undercover detective. Look at authority’s agendas and accounts to find out how they operate. Some public authorities also have disclosure logs allowing you to look at how they have responded to all their FoI questions – this is often a good hunting ground for inspiration.

Tip Eight: Try not to take ‘no’ for an answer too often

One criticism of the Act from journalists is that authorities always use exemptions to stop you from having the information you want. But the fault on the whole lies with us for asking the wrong questions.

However, when you think you should have got the answer to your question but have not, then take it to appeal. Even if you lose but have put up a good fight it at least lets the authority know that you won’t go down without a struggle.

Tip Nine: Use the Information Commission

If you still don’t get any joy, don’t be shy about taking your case to the Information Commissioner. When they eventually make a ruling, they will invariably take your side.

When a public authority refuses the information on the basis that they don’t believe it would be in the public interest to release it – It means you are on to something good and it is always worth an appeal.

Tip Ten: Don’t waste your time pursuing information which is already available!

It has been said that we are entering into a new age when information will be at the forefront of the news and high on the agenda of policy makers.

All news organisations, big or small, should be doing more to keep ahead of the game. At the moment there is no formal training of journalists in relation to Freedom of Information, few organisations if any even have somebody with a responsibility for Freedom of Information let alone a specialist in the field. They are missing a trick – we complained bitterly and successfully, in part thanks to the Press Gazette, to save the Freedom of Information Act from being neutered – now it is here to stay we should really put our weight behind it and use it to its full potential.

Thanks for BJW graduate Ericka Waller for interviewing Matt and compiling this list

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