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The News Media List: Our Latest Initiative

by FOIA Project Staff on December 1st, 2016

Just how active is the news media in taking federal agencies to court when they don’t promptly turn over the records being sought? Hard data to reliably answer this question has been extremely limited. FOIAproject.org today announces an ambitious initiative aimed at filling this void.

Past Speculation

Fifty years ago news organizations and various associations were central backers for the passage of the original Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless, the news media has been soundly criticized for so rarely invoking it to challenge improper withholding in the federal courts. The media’s focus on immediacy, now heightened with the 24 hour news cycle, is often cited to explain why pursuing often lengthy litigation has had little appeal. Then too, the growing financial pressures that the industry has been experiencing have made marshaling resources needed to mount such suits more difficult. But some critics also believe that the media as a whole has simply become less willing to haul federal bureaucrats to court.

While hard evidence is spotty, past studies have suggested that fewer FOIA lawsuits have been filed by the media and greater reliance is now being placed on disclosures from other sources, including less objective advocacy groups who have become increasingly active FOIA players. See, for example, FOIA Project’s March 2013 report. Pointing to the emergence of new sources and organizational forms to deliver news, others have argued that use of FOIA by the press may be actually increasing because of the emergence of these so-called “new” media outlets. See FOIA Project’s December 2014 report.

Launching “The News Media List”

Trying to get more definitive answers about actual media trends, the FOIA Project for more than a year has been systematically gathering detailed information to document each lawsuit filed by reporters and news organizations. Starting with the case-by case records on virtually every FOIA suit now available on FOIAproject.org, the project team examined and classified each of the nearly nine thousand individual names of plaintiffs for cases filed in federal district court since the beginning of FY 2001 to identify those that were media related.

The result is what we have dubbed “The News Media List”. This never-before available interactive tool not only identifies each media organization and reporter, but also provides direct access to a variety of details about every case. For more recent cases, a useful synopsis is given, along with descriptors of the specific issues involved. Click on a “case detail” link to pull up the court docket, the actual complaint and court opinions (where available), and an up-to-date listing of the events and proceedings that have taken place.

To see who the most active FOIA media filers are, using this interactive tool you can sort by media name, or by time period and media category. Look for forthcoming focused follow-up reports, including one covering what these initial data reveal about media lawsuits during the Obama versus Bush administrations.

Please Help Us Improve This List

This list contains the names of 369 reporters and news organizations we have been able to identify so far. Reporters identified include those working for all types of news media organizations, freelance journalists and others serving as “new media” sources reporting on news events. For some suits, both a news organization and a reporter at that organization were named plaintiffs in the federal court action. Other suits were brought individually by reporters. On at least one occasion, more than one news organization joined in filing the lawsuit.

Our work continues examining the individual complaints to double check whether we have missed or misclassified anyone. We are publishing this initial list now to encourage others to contribute to this effort. Please email us at trac@syr.edu with the names of anyone we missed, and let us know if we have made any errors.

If you were the plaintiff or attorney in any of these cases, we would especially encourage you to contribute commentary about the case, or additional court documents recording details of the case that you would be willing to share.

We aim to keep this list regularly updated as new cases are filed by reporters and media organizations. We also hope to extend this initiative to systematically track other categories of FOIA requesters such as scholars, commercial requesters, advocacy organizations, and more. Please help make this possible through your donation. The TRAC Gift Fund has been set up through the Newhouse School at Syracuse University to support this effort.

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