Sunday, 12 August 2012

Journalism Tips 37. How to get a job in journalism: Freedom of Information

Since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) public bodies have been bombarded by millions of requests for all manner of pointless and trivial data. Take this about zombie attacks in Leicestershire there is a real danger that such requests will result in pressure for the FoI to be tightened up — and believe me that's what every council, MP and every other public body wants. To a certain extent you can't blame them as FoI Man points out says we should start listening to the Act's critics.

First and foremost I'd suggest reading David Higgerson's brilliant FoI blog which is full of updates and very useful advice and suggestions.

But simply putting in an FoI is only one part of the equation. Why do we put in FoI requests? To produce copy - too often people take their eye off the ball. The aim is produce a story - simply having the figures/documents in themselves is not enough. For example stats based FoIs are useless unless there is an angle - again this is where contacts (yes, those again) become invaluable.

A good contact may be able to steer you in a given direction and help you refine your FoI to get the results you are after - because don't think that once you've lodged your request you can sit back and wait for the stories to come popping out the other end.

For local bodies have become increasingly aware of what FoIs can do and will do everything to stall and cause problems - perhaps acting within the law but not within the spirit of it.

So it helps if you have an idea of what you are looking for - otherwise it just becomes a needle in a haystack. Too often you will get back stats that show no marked difference at all from one year to the next. In most cases that isn't news - certainly not in itself.

News, at least in this context, should be dynamic. If it is not moving than is it news? Simply reporting that there has been an average of 30 deaths a year on London Underground over the past five years is not, in itself news - it is simply a statistic, a sad one, but a statistic in itself.

Clearly this is not to say that the individual stories aren't stories themselves. Or if it emerged that one station was notorious for accidental  deaths or suicides and that nothing had been done about it. Or that every year a particular month saw figures jump. In other words you still need an angle. Simply saying that over the entire network the figures have remained more or less static is not news, it is simply misfortune. Life by its very nature comes with the risk of death attached (actually it's guaranteed so let's say premature death).

Now had the figure spiked or plunged in one of those years then there is the possibility of a story, say, an investigation into why.

But the figures in themselves are dull reading and too many student FoIs are ill thought out. Simply groping in the dark for a potential story and finding little of value or nothing.

Alternatively you should be looking for stories that will produce copy whatever the result. For example the number of pensioners who have been arrested and for what crimes. In this respect whatever the figure/details it is a story within itself.

Secondly FoIs do simply revolve around figures, reports can be opened up, expenses revealed and so much more.

Again it is a question of being judicious with your search. And again you don't have to be working on a  national newspaper to make an impact. Take this for January 2011 when Cornwall Council was making massive cuts with some of its lowest paid workers being axed and all manner of "exciting" cost saving schemes.

My initial intention was to see how much was being spent on flights by the officers. This request was rejected as too time consuming. So I narrowed my request. This time restricting it to named individuals - the Cabinet and the most senior council managers, including the £200,000+ a year chief executive.

The results were (from a story point of view) pleasing. An austerity council had spent £5,000 to sent the most highly paid man on a training course to New York. The story was subsequently picked up by the Daily Express.

So here you are seeing the situation change: Council making large cuts but the spending at the top not.

Or this. In 2007/2008 there were a spate of suicides of young people in Bridgend, Wales. The media came under fire for apparently, claimed the authorities, inflaming the situation. Simply reporting the facts, they said, was making matters worse. The fact that national interest in the situation was only aroused after the fifth such death after a local news agency began to see a "cluster" develop appeared not to be of importance. The media were to blame.

It later emerged that there had in fact been 13 similar deaths - many had gone unreported initially. Even so this was the media's fault.

The deaths continued at a grim and relentless pace. Relations between the police, health authorities and the media were, to put it mildly, strained.

But it was at one press conference that the health authority revealed it had set up a task force more than a year before the cluster had started to emerge. Under questioning - as to why they had set this group up - they admitted they were acting on the advice of a report drawn up.

The next questions were obvious. What was the report? What did it say? Who wrote it? Why was it commissioned?

It took an FoI to get the report and alas the story never got the due prominence perhaps it deserved. But it did at least come out.

So to recap don't expect the FoI to be your passport to a succession of news stories. Think about the current situation globally and see if you can adapt what you are asking. For example cuts in council budgets is there a corresponding drop in the amount the local authorities spend on, for example, entertainment - or as is becoming frequently popular these days, award ceremonies for local councils.

Look at comparing two or three councils - the contrast may give you the story you are after. For example the amount a Chief Executive spends on taxis in neighbouring local authorities. If one CEO spends nothing and the other thousands than you have a story.

Learn to hone your FoIs. And keep a note of all the details - this is the start of your contact book. Once you have the details it does get easier.

Also learn to use public bodies' websites. All too often the info will be there but, as you can imagine, it is hidden away deep inside a labyrinth - and make a note of where it can be found.

And always, always, always state that your information comes from a Freedom of Information Act request. This info should be available to the public without us having to search and beg and plead or indeed have a special law...but that's the way it is.

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