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Research: Freedom of Information Act

News Story

Dyson Assistant Professor Kate Fink and Michelle Ricciardi ’17 are researching the Freedom of Information Act and how it relates to student journalists seeking public information for their stories.

Getting the scoop as a student journalist often requires diligence and persistence in seeking the truth and reporting it accurately, and sometimes these traits are put to the test when requesting public records for a story.

That’s why Dyson Assistant Professor of Media, Communications, and Visual Arts Kate Fink, PhD, is working with communications student Michelle Ricciardi ’17 to research how often college media uses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), what types of information they are using it for, and their success or failure in receiving the information they request.

“It can be hard for any journalist to use these laws and when you are talking about student journalists who are still in school, they face an extra set of challenges,” Fink says.

The Freedom of Information Act is a law that gives people the right to access information from the federal government, and is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions, which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

Every state has public record laws similar to the FOIA, in which people can obtain public records and documents from state and local governments.

In college media, if a student wants to obtain information from a public institution, the records apply, but if the university is private, not so much, Fink says.

She says student journalists are interested in obtaining information such as budgets, minutes from board of trustees meetings, police records, security records, and more from their universities.

“We are trying to cast a really wide net by creating a survey to send out to universities across the country, and we are hoping to get as much participation from as many types of schools as possible about whether or not they filed these requests and what the outcomes were,” Fink says.

Ricciardi, who will be the editor in chief of the Pace Chronicle this upcoming academic year, says she is looking forward to incorporating the research into the newspaper’s reporting process.

“I hope to gain a better understanding of how the process works as far as getting records, what students are using them for, and what can we use that for because that would be interesting for our paper,” Ricciardi says. “I want to see if the law is being enforced—just because it says we can have this information doesn’t mean we get it.”

Fink adds there aren’t many places for students to share information among college papers, and this information could be really useful for story ideas.

Fink and Ricciardi are still in the early stages of their research, but they hope their survey will spread and acquire a large sample for them to work with.

“I think it is important to research this because there is a lot of information that remains hidden, even though it should remain public,” Fink says. “People understand how news works, and they draw attention to the things they want attention on—not the things that don’t show them in a positive light. There are a lot of issues with the law as well, but this provides an opening for people to ask questions and find the information they need.”