SEJ Watchdog Swiftly Responds For More Press Freedom

February 15, 2008

 

By TIM WHEELER

A journalist's job is to follow the facts and call them as they appear, no matter which side of a debate they may favor. In the past year, as president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I've often found myself explaining to various people and groups that the only cause for which SEJ advocates is more and better coverage of the environment.

But I have to confess that's not quite true. There's another cause we unabashedly embrace, and openly espouse: the necessity, in a democratic society, for journalists and the public to get complete and accurate information about how their government is working – or not.

Five years ago, SEJ's board of directors set up a Freedom of Information Task Force "to address freedom- of-information, right-to-know, and other news gathering issues of concern to the pursuit of environmental journalism." The task force, made up of working reporters, journalism professors and other SEJ members, works to maintain the access of journalists and the public to records and other information about the environment. And it isn't shy about speaking out on behalf of SEJ when it spies threats.

Two recent episodes show the task force at its best – and demonstrate the need for advocacy.

In October, SEJ member Kinna Ohman, a freelance reporter working on an assignment for the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's "Environment Report," contacted Yellowstone National Park to arrange an interview with a wolf biologist on staff. A public affairs staffer at the park sent her an application for a permit to do the interview, requiring that she pay a $200 fee up front, with the possibility of additional per-day fees while in the park.

Kinna did what many SEJ members do when stunned or stumped. She posted her experience on SEJ-Talk, where a gaggle of members quickly urged her to challenge the permit and fee requirement. She did, and the park service public affairs staff promptly backed down, saying it had all been a misunderstanding, that it hadn't been made clear up front that Kinna was doing a story for public radio.

But her plea for help alerted Joe Davis, the hard-working member of SEJ's staff who serves on the Freedom of Information Task Force. Joe's many contributions to SEJ include editing WatchDog TipSheet, a biweekly online newsletter devoted to chronicling freedom-of-information and First Amendment developments as they pertain to coverage of the environment.

It was not a new issue for Joe and SEJ. Complaints and concerns had cropped up before, mainly with photographers who'd been told they'd need to pay for a permit to take pictures in national parks. The Department of Interior had even begun drafting regulations codifying what had previously been guidelines, but those had seemed stalled a year ago.

Kinna's plight prompted Joe to check. He learned that Interior had, in fact, revived and formally proposed binding regulations. And though federal officials had previously said journalists were exempt from such permit and fee requirements, he found that wasn't always the case, and the language of the proposed regulation only muddied the issue further. Even more worrying, the opportunity for the public to comment on the rule before it became final was nearly up.

He reported his findings to the Task Force, setting in motion a whirlwind effort to comment before it was too late. Working with task force members, Joe drafted comments expressing "strong concern" over the proposed rule. Believing that many voices were better than one in making an outcry, we circulated our comments among other journalism groups to alert them to the issue and invite them to join with us in protesting. Eighteen groups did – a veritable who's who of the journalism spectrum. What's more, with so many journalists involved, word of the looming regulation crept into the news, in newspaper stories and editorials and online in blogs.

A few weeks later, another threat emerged – again brought to SEJ's attention by one of its vigilant members. Associate member Mary Zanoni, a lawyer and freelance writer, reported that the farm bill being debated in the Senate carried a little-noticed provision that would restrict access to information about sick farm animals. More troubling still, the measure also would make it a crime for any- SEJ watchdog swiftly responds for more press freedom 2 SEJournal WINTER 2008 SEJ President's Report One cause we unabashedly embrace: the necessity for journalists and the public to get complete and accurate information about how their government is working – or not. COVER PHOTO: one to disclose or use (which would include publishing or broadcasting) information farmers would report to the new National Animal Identification System to be established under the bill.

Never mind that some of the same information is already a matter of public record, such as the location of "confined animal feeding operations" regulated under the federal Clean Water Act. Or that anyone with eyes to see or nose to smell might be able to spot livestock on a farm from a nearby public road.

With even less time to respond – the farm bill already was being debated on the Senate floor – SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force sprang into action. Joe once again drafted, and the task force leadership blessed a letter to be sent to all 100 senators calling such restrictions "unprecedented and unconstitutional." The letter urged senators to remove the secrecy provision from the bill.

Six other journalism groups signed on to SEJ's letter. Other J-groups joined with open-government advocacy groups in signing a similar letter opposing the farm bill information restrictions.

As I write this, the outcome of both these issues is unresolved. Rest assured that SEJ will continue to track these and other threats to the ability of journalists to gather and report information about environmental issues. And we'll keep speaking out, when appropriate, because this form of advocacy is for the cause of honest journalism and a betterinformed public.

A watchdog's job is often a thankless one, but I hope you'll join me in expressing heartfelt appreciation to the members of the Freedom of Information Task Force, particularly Joe Davis and Chairman Ken Ward, for their vigilance and dedication to this vital effort. And one of the best ways to thank them is to pitch in and help. The task force could always use more eyes and ears, but it could also use some extra hands at researching issues, writing letters and publicizing actions taken.

We're all busy, but this is a form of giving back to our family of environmental journalists that fills you with a sense of larger purpose!

Tim Wheeler covers growth and development for The Baltimore Sun and is SEJ board president.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2008 issue

 

TIM WHEELER