Jeff Kelly Lowenstein was looking at fatal police shootings in Chicago, and so he began with a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) to the Chicago Police Department.
It quickly became a lesson for Lowenstein, a reporter for Hoy, a daily Spanish-language newspaper, in the difficulty reporters face in getting needed information.
“We filed a number of FOIA requests, probably about four,” said Lowenstein, who was a reporter at the Chicago Reporter at the time. “We asked for this data in a number of different ways and didn’t really get much response.”
His experience mirrors the reality for many Chicago area journalists, according to a recent survey conducted for the Chicago Headline Club (CHC) by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Survey Research Laboratory (SRL). The McCormick Foundation supported the effort.
The survey examined journalists’ accessibility to information whether through FOIA requests, credentials or access to public information, including meetings with officials.
And the main conclusion is that a significant number of barriers prevent reporters from providing timely, comprehensive coverage. Some of these barriers are that:
- Most public agencies ignore the law, especially on providing the information in a timely manner.
- Accessing information from some government and public agencies is difficult and inconsistent.
- Credentialing is a problem especially for the small media outlets.
The survey’s key result: FOIA requests are one of the hardest ways to access information. Although most are “ultimately fulfilled, Chicago (meaning the city of Chicago) was the least likely to fulfill requests.”
According to the survey, 46.5 percent of respondents have used FOIA requests to access information they need. Between 50 and 60 percent said they need access to information for their work, which becomes an issue when they have to wait over long spans of time to get the data.
Aware that there’s a long delay in getting information from agencies like CPD, Lowenstein began his research a year before the story deadline.
In an effort to see how successful other community and ethnic media are in getting information, the Community Media Workshop spoke to twelve different publications in the Chicagoland area.
Half of them have filed FOIA requests before and although most received responses, the majority dealt with delays, incomplete information and the need to put pressure on the agency before receiving the requested information.
Of those who had not filed FOIA’s before, most knew where to go for help and felt comfortable filling out a request if need be.
Elias Cepeda, managing editor of Extra newspaper, a bilingual weekly, estimates two thirds of the FOIA requests his publication files get a response. But sometimes it takes a longer than expected to get a response, causing a delay in the story, he says.
“I think the city of Chicago definitely has some issues with transparency,” he said. “That’s a broad statement but I think that it’s not really within the culture or the bureaucratic setup to be very responsive to these requests.”
Lowenstein is not the only one who has had to deal with the lack of information from CPD. Glenn Reedus from the Chicago Crusader, a weekly newspaper that serves the African-American community throughout Chicago, said he was denied a FOIA request from CPD.
“The information was not provided,” Reedus said. “They said it was too broad even though I felt it was very specific. Generally information is available but this would have put them in a negative light so I suppose that’s why. I left it alone after that and just wrote around it.”
Because Cepeda expects agencies are more likely to respond to a bigger publication, he suggests that ethnic and community media need to add pressure to the agency for a response.
“I would also imagine that a lot of these agencies, even within the communications department, are pretty backed up themselves,” he said. “I don’t know for certain but I think all those things may come into play.”
Reporters like Lowenstein have learned that there are great differences between agencies when it comes to getting information.
“[The shooting story] was an example where it was really hard,” he said. “In other agencies it can go a lot better. Some agencies are trying to help you get the data.”
Gabriel Piemonte, editor of the Hyde Park Herald, agrees. He thinks the real challenge may sometimes be in filing the request appropriately.
“Maybe from our point of view we are looking for a certain piece of information and it seems pretty straightforward,” he said. “We may want to know how many students were absent in September 2009 versus September 2008 but then the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) might not have information organized that way so you get a response that sort of says, I can’t provide that for you.”
The key, he said, is connecting with someone who can listen to what you need and learning how to ask for the information the way the agency has it organized.
With a similar thought in mind, Lowenstein sought the help of a pro bono lawyer.
“He gave us the name of a particular type of report that is created after every fatal police shooting,” Lowenstein said. “We then submitted the request for this very specific report. I should say that they did previously give us the total numbers of shootings per year. If I remember correctly, [after this last FOIA] they gave us about nine of these reports but they were very heavily redacted.”
Ronald Roenigk at the News-Star, a North side neighborhood weekly, remembered a time the News-Star wanted to report on the kind of research that is done before granting permit parking zones, which an outgoing alderman was putting in the area he lived in.
“I think the biggest disappointment in going through the whole process is finally getting it and realizing how little information it has or how weak it is,” he said.
After a long process and delays in the information requests, he received the data.
“Turns out not a lot of research goes into making those decisions,” he said. “So we really didn’t get much back.”
Still, for the Chicago Citizen, receiving information through FOIA requests has never been a problem, said reporter Thelma Sardin. According to her, the publication files about three requests a year, which usually receive quick results.
Lakshmana Rao, editor at the India Tribune, has never filed a FOIA request though he admits investigative reporting is not something the India Tribune focuses on. Access to information for a story is easy for him to come by due to strong relationships with officials and the community they serve.
“The challenges we have as community news organizations aren’t so much about getting the data,” said Lowenstein. “I think the challenge is reaching out to the right people and having the right relationships.”
To combat this, Cepeda keeps an updated list of contacts that can help him gain access to information he may need, in addition to spending time at city hall, visiting local offices and covering community meetings.
“It’s especially important for Latino publications to let people know that they are doing serious reporting,” said Cepeda. “They get a million requests. Why should they talk to us as opposed to anyone else? If they see you doing serious, fair reporting, when you come to them for a quote or information they know you mean business. “
All twelve publications believe their access to meetings is strong and they face little or no difficulty setting up interviews with public officials.
They said that attending local events regularly and staying up to date with press releases and emails about meetings and public officials’ media availability is the best way to get easy access to information and people.
Indeed, one of the realities is that the smaller ethnic and community news media do not do the kind of reporting that requires them to press hard for public information.
But some are trying to get involved in this work.
Richard Muhammed, Editor-in-Chief of the Final Call Newspaper, the newspaper for the Nation of Islam, said that his publication plans to do more investigative reporting. The publication is currently setting up training for its reporters.
“We feel we want to move out publication to the next level,” he said. “We do a decent job of looking at stories and analyses but we want to go even deeper and get into operations of government and other important institutions to try to get more facts and have them tell us exactly what is going on or what’s not going on.”
Piemonte believes this also helps his publication gain access to public officials.
“There’s a real awareness by elected officials to the sensitivity of our needs and that it will reflect badly on them if they don’t cooperate with us,” he said.
Although Muhammed has never filed a FOIA request, he said making sure they produce an excellent product is the best way to letting elected officials know that it is smart to provide access to information.
“We are committed to giving our readers the best possible coverage so we have to get a hold of these people,” he said. “We feel that our access to information is not only about relationships with the officials. If we have a good relationship with someone that’s good but if we don’t that’s good too. The bottom line is they have a responsibility to provide the information and we have a responsibility to go find it.”
Indeed when Lowenstein didn’t have much luck getting information from the police department, he and his team set out to find the information through other outlets.
“The fact that the police didn’t give us that information was hard but we devised different strategies using publicly available information and went around that,” he said.
After a multi-step process that included collecting data from various venues, Lowenstein had a database built with details of each case, including the officer involved, location and neighbor response.
“We decided to see if there had been warning signals in the past,” Lowenstein said. “Several officers had been sued multiple times.”
For Ashmar Mandou, managing editor at the Lawndale News, being aggressive and finding a different angle to a story paid off when she was able to interview Rahm Emmanuel before the election, an interview that took a month to set up.
“I really pushed for us being a grassroots location and talked about how it would benefit him to talk to the local newspapers,” she said. “Because of that he decided to go ahead and set up the interview. I emailed his personnel about three or four times a week.”
Mandou acknowledges though, that most community and ethnic publications, which are usually smaller, may not have an easy time keeping up with requests when getting a response can be very difficult.
“Manpower definitely helps and when you are in a community newspaper and you are low on staff it can become a little difficult to really follow up but again if you are persistent then it helps,” she said.
Although most said they have not been hindered in their work by the lack of credentials, journalists at all ten publications said reporters usually have Chicago Police credentials.
“There’s no need for us to really have them or present them,” said Mariano Santos, editor-in-chief of The Filipino American News. “Our business card is usually enough. Plus everyone in the community knows us so we don’t have problem accessing information.”
Samuel Zheng, a reporter for the Sing Tao Daily, said the real value to press passes is access to media parking spaces.
“[The credentials] are very convenient for the parking at city hall,” he said. “The main benefit we see is the parking.”
For the Sing Tao Daily, access to events usually requires an invitation or business card. Like Zheng, Roenigk enjoys the perk of having easy access to venues like McCormick Place with his press pass.
“It makes it easier to cover events in venues like those,” he said.
Others though, say press credentials are important not only to gain access to events, but to prove credibility to officials.
“Frankly for the black press and other ethnic media, we are always challenged more than others so we need to have as much of the required credentials or whatever it is as necessary so that we don’t allow people to keep us from having access to things that we should be at based on a technicality,” said Muhammed.
One of the problems these smaller news outlets face is their lack of familiarity with how to get information from public agencies.
“We haven’t had any opportunity to make a request like [the FOIA],”said Santos.
Santos also said he doesn’t know of any particular agency that would be available to aid him in filing such a request.
Fabiola Pomareda, a reporter for La Raza, a weekly Spanish newspaper, agrees. Although she has never filed a FOIA, the opportunity to file one recently came up when she was working on a story about Chicago Public Schools.
Knowing the process was long, she decided not to file the request, instead choosing to find the information elsewhere.
“I was on deadline for that story so I didn’t want to lose time,” she said. “There were two other times where I used data that was released by FOIA that was filed by other media. I give them the credit but that information has been very useful to me.”
Although Lowenstein managed to get the information he needed to write his story, he said better cooperation to divulge information would have helped it along.
“It would have given us a better insight to how the police evaluated each shooting,” he said.
Nonetheless he was able to finish the story and it was published on time.
Vanessa Valentin wrote this article for the Community Media Workshop’s ethnic news project