Sunshine Week

Happy Sunshine Week! Here are investigative resources for journalists and other citizens

Even though I've been reporting for decades, I always learn something useful during Sunshine Week, the subject of all my posts this week. Well, this year was no different.

One thing I hadn't known about before was the Citizen Journalist's Guide to Open Government, put out by the Knight Citizen News Network.

And, with permission of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I'm reproducing here SEJer Joe Davis's "10 Key Open-Gov Resources for Enviornmental Journalists": 

1. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Publishes a suite of authoritative booklets on journalists' rights of access to information — and practical how-to's on using them most effectively. They offer free legal advice for journos.

2. The Sunlight Foundation. Incites and supports use of digital tools to overcome government efforts to hide the truth about its occasionally sleazy behavior. Tools for all!

3. Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee. Watchdogs press freedom and info-access issues in most of the 50 states. Who's active in your state?

4. National Freedom of Information Coalition. Builds networks of reporters and grass-roots FOI activists in most states. Now has Knight money to help fund FOI court cases.

5. Freedom Forum/First Amendment Center. Funded via the Gannett legacy, the First Amendment Center offers numerous programs and information sources.

Scientists: Obama administration muzzles us as much as George W. Bush's did

It was a year ago this month that President Obama issued a memo giving underlings three months to draw up policies “to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.” But, as New Scientist blogger Peter Alhous put it the other day

“We're still waiting, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is ... well, concerned about the delay.”

Now comes a new survey of scientists by researchers from George Mason University’s Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, or SKAPP. It  says the Obama administration is – this seems hard to believe – not doing any better than the previous Bush administration on the squelching-science score.

 Researchers interviewed 37 federal scientists at 13 federal agencies in 2008, when George W. in front of a flag was the picture gracing the walls on federal offices. They returned in the summer of 2009 to the same researchers. And?

 "Most subjects did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration."

Recall that the Bush administration had a terrible record on this score, which we covered at Dateline Earth.

Had trouble getting info from the government? Tell it to the Datamine project for Sunshine Week

I'd planned for this third of my Sunshine Week posts to write about examples of folks who have had trouble getting the government to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Public Employees for Environmental responsibility, for example, has a doozy.

I’d also planned to dip into some analysis of the situation from the 30,000-foot view, such as the AP's look at the Obama administration’s increased use of FOIA exemptions by Sharon Theimer.

But today I heard about this cool project in which the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation are asking citizens to contribute to their Datamine project for Sunshine Week. So instead of a longer post, here’s the text of a post I made today to the Society of Environmental Journalists’ SEJ-Talk listserv:

Folks – let me encourage you to take part in this interesting project by the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation to find out about how citizens are doing when they try to get information from the government: http://bit.ly/c4FsRa .

The questions they’re asking citizens – and journalists are citizens, too – to answer are:

• Has the government denied your attempt to FOIA certain information?
• Are you aware of any government reports or data that are unnecessarily hidden from public view?
• Have you successfully obtained government data, only to find it difficult or impractical to use in today’s electronic environment?

It seems like a cool project. I plan to respond. It’s timed, of course, for Sunshine Week. So reply in the next few days if you can.

Slow government action under Freedom of Information Act = a less robust democracy

I was driving the other day when my celphone started vibrating. I pulled it from my pocket. It was a call from a northern Virginia number I didn't recognize. I dutifully pulled over and answered. It was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling back about a Freedom of Information Act request -- one that I filed nearly three months earlier, back in the first days of winter. Note that spring starts this Saturday. The phone call I took as I sat by the side of the road in my two-seater Honda was the first time I had spoken with an EPA official about the request. The story for which I was gathering information when I filed the request ran Jan. 12.

Now, at the time I filed the request, I was desperate for information about what the EPA had to say about a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. I was putting together a story on new research that suggests dangerously high concentrations of these PAH chemicals may be coming off parking lots with coal-tar sealants.

Why was I desperate? Because, as I explained yesterday in kicking off this series of Sunshine Week posts, the EPA had simply refused to have a meaningful conversation about what was -- and still is -- emerging as a major potential threat to public health. (It's also a threat that has not been written about very much, btw. Our story for MSNBC was far and away the highest profile the issue has achieved to date.)

The caller from an EPA northern Virginia office was Crystal Samuels. She wanted to know if I still wanted that information. In her introduction, she was apologetic about the time lapse, telling me: