Fit for purpose? Exploring the role of freedom of information laws and their application for watchdog journalism

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Abstract

Despite great volume of research into press–state relations, we know little about how journalists use information that has been generated through independent bureaucratic processes. The present study addresses this gap by investigating the role of freedom of information (FOI) laws in journalism practice. By surveying journalists (n = 164), interviewing activists and civil servants (n = 7) and submitting FOI requests to twenty-one ministerial departments in the United Kingdom, this study explores press-state interactions and the limits of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) application to advance the media’s monitorial function. The results show that journalists perceive FOIA as an essential tool for their work. However, they often described their experience as negative. They reported refusals lacking legal ground, delays, not responding at all or differential treatment. In response to gating access, journalists might also adopt tactics that use loopholes in the law. The press-state interactions, already marked by suspicion, thus, continue to perpetuate distrust. These findings might have implications for journalism practices, FOIAs’ potential for government oversight and democracy. In particular, the differential treatment of requests undermines equality under the law, one of the fundamental democratic principles. The study concludes with several policy recommendations for FOIA reform to meet journalists’ needs better.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Journal of Press/Politics
Early online date21 Apr 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Apr 2021

Keywords

  • truth seeking
  • investigative journalism
  • monitorial role
  • journalistic sources
  • freedom of information
  • transparency
  • press-state relations

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