Take the offense when advocating for FOI

Jim Pumarlo

Jul 1, 2023

Why not be proactive in educating public officials on the dos and don’ts of public information?

Preserving and promoting the public’s right to know was a priority during my tenure as an editor. We regularly jousted with public officials, educating them on the letter of the law in circumstances of open meetings and public data.

Whenever someone tried to withhold information clearly classified as public, we tripled our efforts. Usually, we were successful. We’d close the loop by informing readers of our resolve to keep them in the know.

Every editor can likely recount numerous instances when they have fought for the release of public information. I remember three of the most egregious cases our newspaper encountered:

• A public safety director was quietly reprimanded after taking a pleasure ride on the city’s water patrol boat while on duty.

• A superintendent refused to acknowledge the recommendation to close a school building until formal school board action.

• A police chief withheld information from a crime scene in deference to the individuals involved.

We pursued and prevailed in publishing the details. Many editors know the routine, but let’s pause for a moment. Our actions are largely reactive.

Why not be proactive in educating public officials on the dos and don’ts of public information? It reminds me of when our city’s newly appointed attorney conducted an orientation for members of boards and commissions. Topics included public meeting procedures, the open meeting law, and ethics in government. I attended and then wrote a column offering our perspective on the attorney’s perspective of the public’s right to know.

Why not consider inviting public officials — anyone for that matter — to a primer on FOI laws? At minimum, editors should seize the opportunity to explain to readers their pursuit of open government when circumstances surface.

Bottom line: If access to information is denied, don’t simply accept “no” for an answer. Here are some tips to guide newsrooms to advance their cases. Some are grounded in law; others are offered as avenues to gain information that may not be readily accessible.


Federal and state laws provide access to a variety of public information. The premise of many laws is that government data is presumed public unless stated otherwise. Being well versed in FOI laws is the first step to gaining access.


Officials frequently withhold information on the basis that they don’t believe it’s in the best interest of the public or the affected individuals, or they don’t believe the information is public. That’s not good enough. Challenge them to cite the law, and, in turn, be prepared to recite the statute that dictates access. This won’t necessarily guarantee release of information, but you’ll be on firmer ground for advancing your argument.


Confidential sources should be used sparingly, but sometimes it’s the only way to confirm information important to readers. A good rule of thumb is to get at least one other source to confirm the information.


Editors and reporters often have their hands full just gathering and reporting the news. Don’t be afraid to solicit assistance from your peers when you hit roadblocks in gaining access to information.

These tips are grounded in the letter of the law. Editors and reporters should be equally aggressive in advancing their request based on the spirit of openness. That’s especially important when seeking information from private entities — civic organizations and businesses, for example — that are not governed by public disclosure laws.

News sources should recognize the potential damage to their images created by hearsay. Reporters should state the importance of quelling rumors by publishing a story that recites the facts straight from the source. Company layoffs are an excellent example; the numbers often become exaggerated. Encourage employers to issue a press release, and speak to the facts. Naysayers still may dismiss the statement as the “company line,” but the story will provide a benchmark for conversation.

Sharing vital information in a timely fashion is a win-win situation for the affected organization and the community. It’s also a prime example of a newspaper doing its job.

Always take the final step. Never underestimate the value of writing a column and explaining why your newspaper is aggressive in pursuing and preserving the public’s right to know — why it is in the best interests of everyone — not to mention, you’re only exercising the public’s rights under the law.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minnesota) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.