Protecting the Watchdog: Using the Freedom of Information Act to Preference the Press

52 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2015 Last revised: 6 Oct 2016

See all articles by Erin Carroll

Erin Carroll

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: 2015

Abstract

The fourth estate is undergoing dramatic changes. Many newspaper reporters, already surrounded by a growing number of empty desks, are shifting their focus away from costly investigative reporting and towards amassing Twitter followers and writing the perfect “share line.” Newspapers’ budgets can no longer robustly support accountability journalism and pitching fights against the government. And so, while this busier and noisier media environment may have a desirable democratizing effect — more of us are able to participate in analyzing, debating, and perhaps even making the news — it has not succeeded in filling a role that print journalists have traditionally played well — keeping watch on the government. In order to perpetuate its historical role as watchdog, the fourth estate needs fortification. This fortification should come in the form of legal preferences for the press. Providing such preferences is not new, but it arguably has not been done in a significant way since postal subsidies were granted to newspapers in the colonial era. Today, with few exceptions, the law generally treats journalists just like any other citizens and news organizations like any other business.

This article proposes a new way to preference the press — one that would not involve direct subsidies or discriminating between old media and new. Instead, it would give journalists a commodity that is fundamental to their work: information. To preference the press, this article looks to the Freedom of Information Act, the law governing when and how the executive branch discloses information to the public. While in theory the law facilitates the press’s access to vast amounts of information in the hands of the executive branch, implementation of FOIA has, since it was passed in 1966, been fraught with problems. Agencies routinely take months and even years to respond to journalists’ requests, making the process incompatible with a news cycle that is spinning ever faster.

This article proposes focusing on FOIA’s expedited processing provisions to prioritize journalists’ requests over those of other requesters, expedite agency fulfillment of them, and ease the press’s ability to challenge late, incomplete, or otherwise unsatisfactory disclosures. It argues that any journalist filing a FOIA request seeking expedited processing should presumptively go to the front of the queue. At that point, there would be firm deadlines (where none exist now) for providing the journalist with the information requested. These small but significant changes to an already established provision of FOIA could help the media better serve as a watchdog at a time when that role needs protecting.

Keywords: Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, press, investigative journalism, news

JEL Classification: K00, K30, K39

Suggested Citation

Carroll, Erin, Protecting the Watchdog: Using the Freedom of Information Act to Preference the Press (2015). 2016 Utah L. Rev. 193 (2016), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2552794 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2552794

Erin Carroll (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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