Fewer journalists requesting access to information

Last year, the amount of access to information requests journalists made
to government dropped 23%. The CBC’s David McKie — who relies on ATI
requests to tell important stories — crunches the numbers, explains the
backwards bureaucracy and tries to figure out why journalists aren’t
demanding more.

He blames overworked, understaffed access-to-information offices, unreasonably long delays in receiving requested information (a story killer in the ever-hungry 24-hour news cycle) and the dearth of j-schools willing to teach students how to file requests.

McKie uses the Treasury Board’s most recent access to information usage numbers:

“For the fiscal year 2009-2010, journalists comprised 10.5 percent of the requesters, which is a 23 per cent decrease from the previous fiscal year when they comprised about 14 per cent of the requesters. The flipside to this trend is more worrying. The number of requests posted by businesses is increasing, up by 14% compared to the previous fiscal year.

“As you can see in the chart below that I made crunching the numbers from previous bulletins, the media requests are heading in the wrong direction – at least in the eyes of those who feel journalists should be using the act in order to get records to tell original stories and hold governments to account.”
ATI requests
Source: infosource.gc.ca

Of course, there are still journalists using ATI requests as part of the investigative process. He cites the Ottawa Citizen’s “excellent behind-the-scenes account last fall… that provided a window in the chaos that resulted after an earthquake shook the foundations of buildings in Ottawa and surrounding towns and cities on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. The story was one of mind-numbing confusion that left some federal officials red-faced and embarrassed. But more importantly, the story also provided a useful example of why it’s important for governments to be prepared for catastrophes and what can result if they aren’t.”

“Stories like this need to be told,” he writes. “Going through the process is not for the faint of heart. But neither is being a journalist facing a federal government bent on spin and obfuscation and a bureaucracy that is justifiably scared, and many times forbidden from talking to journalists. So let’s all get cracking. There’s too much at stake for journalists to be on the wrong side of a downward trend.”