UA Study: Public Access to Government Info to Worsen

School of Journalism director David Cuillier led a study finding that most journalists and freedom of information experts surveyed are concerned that it will be increasingly difficult for citizens to gain information about government affairs.
March 13, 2017
David Cuillier
David Cuillier

The ability of citizens to find out what their government is up to will become more difficult under the new presidential administration, experts say, according to a national study conducted by a University of Arizona professor David Cuillier.

Cuillier, director of the UA School of Journalism, surveyed and interviewed more than 300 journalists and freedom of information experts in December and January regarding their experiences and predictions in accessing public records.

The study, "Forecasting Freedom of Information," was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to assess the state of freedom of information today and ways it might be improved. The Knight Foundation released the findings on March 12. 

Cuillier found that:

  • About half of the experts said access to state and local government records has worsened during the past four years (41 percent said it stayed the same and 13 percent said it got better). A similar sentiment was expressed regarding federal records under the Obama administration.
  • Survey participants reported long delays in getting information, documents excessively censored, high copying fees, out-of-date government technology and public officials not knowing the laws.
  • Nearly nine out of 10 predicted that access to information will worsen during the next four years under the new presidential administration.

"Journalists and others in the information trenches continue to report more and more government secrecy, which makes it harder for citizens to know what their government is up to," Cuillier said. "The forecast is for even more secrecy, and more fights for the public's right to know. One investigative reporter told me that 'it's going to be a backyard brawl.'"

Cuillier surveyed 228 experts and interviewed 108 for the study, which was released for national Sunshine Week, held in support of an open government and sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, with support from the Knight Foundation and the Gridiron Club and Foundation.

The consensus of those surveyed indicated that the new presidential administration has demonstrated increased efforts to control information, including refusal to disclose the president's tax returns, removal of data from government websites and blackballing journalists.

The experts provided hundreds of suggestions for improving the system, including strengthening penalties for officials who break public records laws, developing new digital tools to aid citizens in acquiring records, improving public education and helping public agencies proactively disclose records online.

"The research is clear: The United States is falling behind other nations in the ability for people to see how their taxes are being spent and in holding elected officials accountable," Cuillier said. "This has been a decades-long trend that has nothing to do with partisan politics. It's about the gradual erosion of a representative democracy — a shift of power from the governed to the governors."

Many of the experts said in the study that they worry citizens are unaware of the gradual creep of government secrecy, and suggested that every person should be taught in school how to acquire public records and engage with their government — basic civics. They pointed to some efforts to help citizens, including MuckRock.com, that provide assistance in requesting records, but ultimately more and more times requesters are denied access.

Cuillier, who serves on the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee and the National Freedom of Information Coalition board, presented his study results at SXSW in Austin on March 12, and plans to follow up with more research during the next two years.