I posted the other week on a good use of FOI by the Brighton Argus, which uncovered an investigation into an alleged manslaughter at one of its local hospitals after submitting an FOI request.
It demonstrated succinctly the secretive tendencies of both police forces and hospital trusts, and as a result proves just how valuable a tool FOI has become.
Hold The Front Page covered the paper’s success too, but the comment from Argus editor Michael Beard struck me as peculiar. While praising the story as an example of ‘FOI at its best’, he added:
“Newspapers need to be careful not to overuse the Act, but this story proves that it is vitally important and useful in uncovering important issues and holding public authorities to account.”
The idea that journalists or news organisations can ‘overuse’ the Freedom of Information Act is one of my pet hates, because I hear it so often. A colleague of mine told me a while ago of a former editor who banned FOI stories after proclaiming he’d seen too many in the paper.
The solution for this colleague was to keep on presenting stories found through FOI, but just not mentioning they were found through FOI. The editor’s problem, she presumed (rightly), wasn’t with the stories being generated through FOI, it was the fact that the phrase ‘freedom of information’ was cropping up in too many news conferences, and too often in print.
Saying that news organisations can overuse the act is, to me, like telling reporters not to ring the police voicebank too often, putting a cap on the number of council agendas a local government reporter can read or restricting the contact you have with a brilliant source.
Because that’s what FOI is – a source of information, not the story itself. It’s very easy to create the same sort of FOI stories time and time again – ask for numbers, pick out a shock one, lead on it, fill story with numbers, get a comment and you’re done – but that’s no different to a reporter who writes a whole story based on a police voicebank mesage, or who quotes the council agenda as the only source.
If you work in a newsroom where there is a concern that FOI is being overused, the problem is probably more to do with the way the information is being used, rather than the use of FOI itself. If you want a good example of a newspaper which, time and again, builds strong stories out of FOI, then check out the Sunday Sun.
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The ethos is that FOI is the start of the story, and that having the information is a very long way from having a great spread for the paper. The great spread involves case studies, multiple opinions, a good graphic and asking the question: “Is this interesting for more than just the fact we’ve got it under FOI?’
Adopt that process and you simply can’t overuse FOI.