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A Requisite for Good Government: Reporters Discuss Covering Local Government

In the introduction to the Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, Gov. Henry McMaster ends his letter with simple instructions to government officials: “When in doubt — disclose.” 

The booklet, published by the SC Press Association as a guide for public officials and the public, is a plain-language guide to how the state’s Freedom of Information Act should guide public meetings and public records in South Carolina. McMaster’s sentiment is echoed by SC Attorney General Alan Wilson’s recommendations, which include: “When fulfilling a request, remember a vigilant press corps is a requisite for good government. As public officials, we have an added obligation to aid members of the media with their quest to properly inform the public.”

It may sound simple, but tension between government officials and members of the media is common. In most cases, it is a normal, expected part of the relationship. 

But reporters want local officials to know something about their profession:

“We’re not the enemy. We’re not there to destroy the way the public views you or to ruin your political career,” said Caitlin Herrington, a Greenville News reporter who covers three Upstate municipalities. “The flip side of that same point is we’re not your partner. We work for the public. Our readership is who we are looking out for.”

Reporters covering government beats say they understand the inherent friction in the relationship. They appreciate communications officers who work to get necessary information to the public, and value efforts to share information including budgets, agendas, searchable reports and high-resolution images on city websites. But reporters can also perceive that some government officials use FOIA to deflect questions and delay answers to a journalist’s requests.

“I’m always surprised by how governments default to secrecy,” said David Slade, a reporter at The [Charleston] Post and Courier, who has been a reporter for 30 years. “Their tendency is to cover themselves by demanding FOIA [requests] for even the most innocuous, the most obviously public information.”

According to the current version of FOIA, government officials have 10 business days to respond to a written request for information. But reporters point out that not every request should require a formal FOIA request; some should simply require a phone call.

“I think it’s part of a trend. Where I might have made a phone call even just several years ago, now it’s, ‘You need to file a FOIA [request].’ And when we do, it’s routine for governments to run out the clock on them. Whatever the state legislature allows for how much time they can take, they’ll take every minute of it,” Slade said. “Even the insignificant stuff. If I need a copy of that contract you approved last night, I shouldn’t need a FOIA [request] for that.”

Slade said he believes some public information officers “want to be able to say ‘We had to give it to them.’ Or, at the end of the year, say ‘Look how many FOIA [requests] I responded to this year.’ It’s a fundamental difference in my opinion. If you and I agree on what’s public information, we shouldn’t need to file a FOIA [request].”

Herrington said it is important to remember that FOIA requests are available to anyone, not just reporters.

“FOIA is not a tool for journalists. We use it and we are more familiar with it, but it is a tool for the people. If we’re having a hard time getting information and we are well versed in these requests, what are they doing when public sends a FOIA request? We’re a large company, we’re going to have the funds to put up the $100 deposit check while they dig up information. Not everybody is going to have that resource available to them,” she said.

“There are a lot of times in the Greenville News newsroom, not just me specifically, but we get a response, ‘Oh, we don’t have that.’ Or ‘We don’t keep up with it.’ And that’s just as concerning. You’re not tracking X, Y or Z which is of large public importance? I imagine at some point hearing that ‘we don’t keep up with that’ is very concerning to the public.”

Slade and Herrington both say always requiring formal requests is not a universal issue. Slade said some cities he has covered in his career, such as Charleston, are more transparent and rarely require him to file a FOIA request for basic information.

Herrington, who has been a reporter for six years, said some of the cities she covers have dedicated public information offices. She said those offices can improve transparency and the public information officers can quickly provide information and help steer reporters in the right direction. But she said government officials should not be surprised when reporters call other sources to find out more information.

“It tends to be helpful to have one person to go to information, but far be it for journalists to stop at one person. A good journalist will have relationships with council, the administrator, the city clerk … We’re going to call other people to get information,” she said.

Slade said he has watched as the attempt to control information has filtered down from the federal level to state government and now to local governments.

“I remember when, if I was trying to find a subject expert, I would just call them. Now, in many cases, the only person allowed to speak with you is the PIO. Or you have to talk to the PIO first and they’ll connect you. Or you’re going to have to submit written questions, and the answers will be non-responsive or vetted by a committee and attributed to the public information officer. It’s useless and frustrating,” Slade said. “It does not serve the government entity or the public well when people who know what they’re talking about can’t talk to you.”

Herrington said she understand that some officials have concerns about interacting with journalists.

“A lot of times government officials want to control the narrative. They think we are going in to a story with a specific angle or purpose. Sometimes that’s true. But good journalists are curious people. And sometimes the story changes while we’re writing it based on new information that comes in. We’re not asking you a specific question just to trap you,” she said. “As much as you want to control the narrative, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes there is documentation that is going to be contrary to what you’re telling me. And it’s my duty is to report that, and to be fair and honest and balanced. And I’m going to do it, whether it helps you or hurts you.”

Local officials should work to ensure that members of the press can get the information they’re seeking as quickly and easily as possible. In some cases, FOIA requires immediate access to information like the previous six months’ of meeting minutes or police reports. In other cases, the local government can provide meaningful amounts of information without a formal FOIA request. 

For example, municipalities prepare a council meeting packet to provide to members of the press who cover their cities. The packet should include all of the information found in a council member’s packet, save for executive session materials. If reporters request a copy of an ordinance, provide them with the ordinance instead of requiring a FOIA request be filed. 

Always returning a reporter’s phone call or email as soon as possible can help as well. Reporters are typically working under very tight deadlines and they need the city’s input. Failure to respond to the reporter could lead to a one-sided story that could have been prevented with a call returned to the reporter.