|(09 Jan 2017)
The number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) cases brought by reporters and news organization has substantially increased during the last four years. Media-filed lawsuits which represented 3.5 percent of total federal filings during earlier years jumped to comprise more than one out of every ten FOIA suits (10.8%) at their peak in FY 2015.
This surprising and substantial recent jump in media-led FOIA litigation emerged from a prodigious research effort covering the last 16 years to classify each of the nearly nine thousand individual names of plaintiffs in FOIA lawsuits to identify those that were media related. While many commentators and surveys have bemoaned the supposed decline in willingness of the news media to challenge unlawful withholding by court action, this is the first comprehensive national research study that examines the actual behavior of news organizations and reporters over a long sweep of time.
There is little evidence that this rise had anything to do with whether or not the level of government secrecy changed. The burgeoning number of individual reporters filing suit on their own behalf without any news organization as a co-plaintiff has largely driven this startling rise. Reporters filing individually now account for over 60 percent of the media suits filed.
This research, conducted for the FOIA Project by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, further shows that most news organizations from FY 2001 - FY 2016 filed just a single suit. This was also true for suits filed by reporters.
However, there were a small number of clearly dominant players. Just three news organizations - The New York Times, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Associated Press - accounted for one out of every three suits filed by news organizations during the entire sixteen year period. Other frequent filers demonstrate that smaller and specialty news organizations can and did play important roles. This study documented that it is not so much resources but commitment from the top that currently determine if news organizations undertake FOIA litigation.
For reporters, while a passion for uncovering how the public's business is being conducted was important, recent changes reducing practical barriers to bringing FOIA lawsuits by individual reporters allowed this commitment to translate into action. Among reporters, Jason Leopold, currently with VICE News, has been far and above the most active FOIA litigant. He filed at least 32 federal FOIA lawsuits, the first of them in 2012.
For further details, see our report just posted on FOIAproject.org:
An accompanying free interactive tool, dubbed The News Media List, identifies each of these news organizations and reporters and provides details on the particular FOIA cases they filed.
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The FOIA Project is self-supporting and depends on foundation grants and individual contributions. The TRAC Gift Fund has been set up through the Newhouse School at Syracuse University to support this effort: