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Q&A with Sarah Cohen

Sarah Cohen, Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy, testified March 15 before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary as part of Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide initiative designed to draw attention to the importance of transparent government and freedom of information. Cohen worked as a writer and editor at The Washington Post for 15 years prior to joining Duke’s faculty. She won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a series on Washington, D.C.’s child welfare system. The Chronicle’s Yeshwanth Kandimalla spoke with Cohen about her recent testimony and the broader issue of freedom of information.

The Chronicle: What is the Freedom of Information Act, and what are the primary concerns surrounding it today?

Sarah Cohen: The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law that is mirrored in most states. It says that when the government collects information... it’s really the public’s [information]. The reason is that the public pays taxes and it’s a democracy so everything in the government is our own. They use it to find out what government is doing both with our money and in our name. It’s a law that’s been around [since it was enacted in 1966], and it’s never worked very well. The main reason is that when you ask for something under the law, as a reporter or anybody else, you almost never get an answer—they stall or they can’t find anything or they decide that it’s not really available to the public. The Senate panel yesterday was a review under the auspices of Sunshine Week to look at how the Freedom of Information Act is working.

TC: How responsive do you believe lawmakers and other government officials have been to this issue?

SC: What tends to happen is that legislators are not subject to [the act]—only the executive branch is subject to [it]. [Legislators] tend to be very supportive of open government and they do believe in democracy... but they’re also torn. For instance, one of the things I mentioned in my testimony is that contractors don’t like the public being able to see the details of the contracts they sign with government—so legislators are torn. Do we help the contractors keep what they think should be confidential secrets or do we let the public know exactly where their money is going? Still it tends to be that Congress and legislators are reasonably supportive of [the act]... [President Barack Obama] has been, in at least what he says, extremely supportive of open records and transparency—it was one of his big campaign promises. It’s much harder to implement than just support.... The last administration of President [George W.] Bush was not as supportive of it—he was known for having kept a lot [of information] secret.

TC: How does your work as a journalist influence your perspective on this topic?

SC: One of the things that happens as a reporter... is that somebody tells you about something or you observe something and you want to know more about it. For instance, when I was working on stories about the quality of drinking water in D.C., we wanted to know what the Environmental Protection Agency knows about the quality of water. We filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get not only Washington’s results but also results of other cities so we could see whether or not what was happening in Washington was unusual. That’s really common, and I’ve used it quite a bit in terms of looking at Homeland Security grants... if you want to know what the government is paying for or what the government is doing, which is a primarily role of public affairs journalists.

TC: As a professor of journalism, how do you incorporate this topic in the material that you present to students?

SC: In the ethics in journalism class I teach, we have a whole day on the idea of open government and transparency and its role in journalism, as well as the tension between keeping secrets that have to be kept and the concept of open government. In the other classes that I teach—which are halfway between journalism and public policy—I try to get students to obtain records under the Freedom of Information Act. So far it’s not been very successful, but it’s a good lesson.

TC: Do you believe that most college students are well-informed about the Freedom of Information Act and public information in general?

SC: No, I really don’t. I’m hoping that our classes are improving that. But, for instance... not just at Duke but at a lot of places... I will ask, ‘Have you ever heard of the Freedom of Information Act?’ and a very small number of people will say they’ve heard of it. In many of the journalism schools... there might be one or two classes that emphasize it but not that much. Journalists seem to learn about it a lot more in practice and not so much in schools.

TC: What about college students compared to the American public as a whole?

SC: Probably about the same—it’s not a big issue to a lot of people. I think in the last presidential election, maybe in reaction to the [Bush] administration, transparency became a big buzzword. In fact, it was really interesting because last year I first asked my students what federal issue they wanted to focus on. About three or four out of 12 said transparency.... It was the first time I have ever heard about anyone caring about government transparency. It had become a buzzword in the last campaign, but it has kind of dropped off the radar in some ways.

TC: : In light of globalization, is it important that other governments around the world increase access to information? Have there been significant strides in transparency around the world?

SC: It’s really interesting to see how other countries have started adopting something that was really quite unique to the United States. In India, for instance, there was a recent freedom of information act passed and... it has changed the lives of a lot of people in villages and towns who are now able to find out where the money they were supposed to get [actually] went. They’re using it just as citizens to identify corruption. Most of the new emerging democracies in Eastern Europe have a freedom of information act now. In South America there have been a lot of changes in access to open records. But you have to have a government before you pass it, so Egypt and Libya might be a little premature. Just very recently, [Western democracies] have implemented a freedom of information act. I think it has to do with the unique form of democracy in this country. We’re the ones that started the idea of direct ownership of government by the people. In places that have older governments, it hasn’t emerged as... a very fundamental part of democracy—now it’s starting to emerge there.