A study published Tuesday found that Illinois reporters experienced records request response delays beyond the statutory limit at local, state and federal levels, and have, in many cases, given up on filing records requests entirely. The study was commissioned by the Chicago Headline Club, a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and funded by the McCormick Foundation.
"So many reporters are just giving up," Susan Stevens, president of the Chicago Headline Club, said. "There's so much defeatism in [the reporters' survey] responses. It's just terrible."
The survey asked reporters about their use of public records, what websites they used to find government information, their use of the federal Freedom of Information Act and the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and what organizations they went to for help in filing a records request.
The study found that just more than half of respondents used government websites and nearly all had submitted a FOIA request at some point. Many expressed frustration with the delays and denials they experienced; one respondent called FOIA "a crutch." Another respondent claimed that the city of Chicago "more often than not, denies any request immediately." Another claimed the Cook County government was "particularly unresponsive."
In 2010, the Illinois FOIA was amended to lessen the amount of time state and local agencies have to respond to requests from seven days to five. The federal FOIA has a 20-day deadline. The majority of those surveyed reported experiencing delays. While most reported eventually getting their requests fulfilled, though not without some withholdings, many reporters noted frustration with the government.
One reporter called the significant delays and denials experienced in attempting to obtain police and fire records an "abuse of power" and "bullying." Another respondent "expect[s] to be denied" because agencies are usually conservative about what they release.
Stevens lamented the attitude from the government, which she said has lead to reporters being reluctant to use FOIA for their stories. She said she hopes this study will lead to an improved system. "I'd like to get the government employees to honor the FOIA, then reporters will use it more," she said. Right now, government employees seem to be "looking to evade it," Stevens said.
Chicago Headline Club was heavily involved in the 2010 reforms to the Illinois FOIA. Stevens said they were "half-way satisfied" with the final results, but the rollbacks that have taken place in the nearly 18 months since the reform passed have been disappointing.
With the recent inauguration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Stevens said she hopes the attitude toward openness within local government will improve. "The problems are with all units of government," Stevens said. "But the city and the county particularly need help."
Chicago Headline Club has sent letters to Emmanuel and Preckwinkle in hopes of setting up meetings to discuss access issues.