Using the FOIA can empower student journalists

            One of the challenges associated with presenting at a conference – journalism or otherwise – is trying to figure out how many people will attend your session.

There have been times when I’ve had standing room only, and other times when I could have invited the attendees to Starbucks to discuss the topic over a latte.

I recently presented three sessions at a conference – one on news literacy, one on lede writing and one on using the Freedom of Information Act.

As I drove through the fall colors of Wisconsin, I wondered.  My thinking was the lede writing would be packed because student journalists, often at the urging of their advisers, want to spice up their ledes, so I generally have a good turnout.  And that was the case.

I wasn’t sure about News Literacy because too many high school journalists it’s a “new” topic, one often mistaken for media literacy.  My expectations were that it would be a small turnout.  I was right.  Small, but enthusiastic.

But what about the FOIA presentation?  You know, that “legal stuff” just ain’t as sexy as InDesign or how to raise money for pizzas.  But to me, know how to access public records is important for all journalists, including scholastic journalists.  So armed with a somewhat humorous title (Dropping the Journalistic F Bomb), I worked my way to the session hoping for the best.

The room was almost filled.  In fact there were more students at my FOIA presentation than there were for my lede writing session.  It must have been the F Bomb.

It was gratifying that so many students had an interest in accessing public records and protecting the public’s right to know.

In addition to tips on how to use the FOIA, we discussed what to expect once you do use it, especially in scholastic media.  The FOIA, like Twitter, Instant gram or Facebook is essential to delivering timely news.

But it’s a tool.

And as is the case with any tool, you need to know not only how to use it, but why you are using it.  The information that is available by using the FOIA is amazing.  The bottom line is this, in most cases if it goes through courts, it is part of a public agency, or if it is government regulated, odds are it can be accessed by the FOIA.

That can put a lot of “power” in the hands of student journalists.

If students decide to use the FOIA to get information about a staff member, faculty member or administrator, they should do so to seek information that is germane to their story.   Just because an administrator is a “jerk” or “the coach didn’t start my boyfriend” is no reason to use the FOIA.  It is to be used, not abused.

If there is ever a time to practice journalistic ethics, it’s when you are going to dig below – way below — the surface.  I often refer students to the Society of Journalists’ Code of Ethics because, quite simply, it’s the best.  The code can be found at

It is also a good time to practice protocol.  Journalism educators need to make sure their student journalists inform them of every step in the process.  Conversely, I have always, maintained an open communication policy with building administrators because, quite simply, principals hate surprises – especially when they’re delivered in student media.  Remember, you are practicing protocol, not asking for prior review.

Students need to be braced for a wave of criticism.  Calls for invasion of privacy, running “personal” information and “taking advantage” of the First Amendment should be expected.  Granted, and hopefully, there will be those news consumers who will understand and appreciate watchdog journalism that is well balanced and well researched.

Still, there will likely be a few administrators who just don’t get it. Rather than try to understand it, they will put on airs as if they do.

As did one administrator who, after being told a journalism staff used the FOIA after a teacher’s arrest, bellowed at the adviser “You can’t use that!”

The answer was quite simply – Yes we can.

The FOIA is a great tool – just use it wisely and with a strong intestinal fortitude.

Stan Zoller, is Vice President of Freedom of Information for the Chicago Headline Club, A former high school journalism teacher and newspaper adviser, he was a DJNF Special Recognition Adviser in 2010 and Distinguished Adviser in 2011.  He is a member of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission and the Outreach Academy Teaching Cadre.