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Sunshine Week Toolkit

What Can I Do?


Newsrooms/JournalistsStudents/Educators Sample Open Government Proclamation Conduct a Freedom of Information Audit

Newsrooms and Journalists

Writing about FOI and government transparency

For inspiration, see these columns by Brechner FOI Project Director David Cuillier (originally published in The IRE Journal):
• Protect hard-won documents from theft, breakdowns and the government (IRE Journal, Q4 2023)
• Expert strategies for getting EPA records: You gotta play to win (IRE Journal, Q1 2023)
• Records reconnaissance: Military documents for every reporter (IRE Journal, Q3 2022)
• Records for social justice: The records you need to expose injustice (IRE Journal, Q3 2021)

If you are writing a news story, editorial or column about freedom of information timed for Sunshine Week (or any time throughout the year) tips from Society of Professional Journalists can help your writing and presentations resonate with readers, viewers and listeners.

We encourage news outlets to publish opinion pieces, columns, notes to readers, FOI and open meetings explainers, editorial cartoons and special reports. Story ideas include:

• Explaining the obstacles and exemptions to obtaining public records in your state.

• Team up with other news organizations to audit public records compliance in every county of your state.

• Profile people in your community whose pursuit of public records has improved community life and/or held officials accountable. Do the same for government employees or elected officials who are committed to records accessibility and transparency on the job.

• Transparency is more than public records. How accessible are public officials (and their spokespeople) to journalists and the public?

• Request appointment calendars from public officials. Report on who responds and who does not.

• Create a graphic that follows the process of submitting a public records request to enforcing public records law.

• Request and publish columns from freedom of information advocates, lawyers who specialize in FOI issues, citizen panels, public officials and others who wish to comment on the importance of open government.

• Conduct an emergency plan audit. What are your community/state plans in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack (including cyber-attacks). Are key segments of the plan available to first responders? The general public? How is funding designated and spent? How well do agencies coordinate and communicate with one another?

• Review local and state government websites, including school districts, to see how well they make public information available.

• Courts are big players in government access because of their role in granting or denying access to records and meetings, What is the record for court transparency in your community, state and federal court for your region?

• Check on how your local government and agencies are acknowledging Sunshine Week and providing information about public records. Here are examples from Florida’s Clerks of Court and Comptrollers and Cary, North Carolina.

• Commission editorial cartoons.

• Publish illustrated histories/timelines of open government laws at the federal level and in your state.

• Showcase stories from the past year that were rooted in public records research and first-person explainers from reporters about how they got the story and how it informed and engaged your local community. Re-package stories that could not have been told without public records compliance, topped with a note to from the editor to readers/viewers/listeners. Share it across your publishing platforms, in newsletters, podcasts, webinars and social media.

Here are Sunshine Week logos to brand your efforts.

Here is the Sunshine Week Social Media Toolkit with suggested hashtags and sample posts.

If you’re convening a community conversation or training sesssion about open records and government transparency, be sure to list it on the national Sunshine Week calendar.

And, here’s a sampling of what newsrooms did in 2023 to highlight their reporting, share responses from readers and ask for financial support to continue providing local watchdog journalism:

• The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked readers to donate to Report for America to help support local journalism jobs in Wisconsin.

Cal Matters did a round-up its stories that are rooted in probing government data, explaining mountains of public records and revealing what government officials do both in and out of meetings.

Maryland Matters cited the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s examination of public school system websites to assess how easy or difficult it is to find key information.

Open Secrets linked to its stories that shined a light on key issues related to money in politics.

Spotlight PA published five tips to win a Pennsylvania open records fight and overcome secrecy in government.

Axios Columbus explained how to file a precise and effective public records request.

FOI Activities for Newsroom
Suggested by the Society of Professional Journalists to educate and inspire co-workers.

Students and Educators

For fun or extra credit, see our page of quizzes and puzzles.

Society of Professional Journalists step-by-step guide on FOI for students
If you’re unfamiliar with FOI laws, need help submitting a records request or simply don’t know where to start, this guide can help.

SPJ’s FOI curriculum and classroom ideas for instructors
Creative approaches to FOI audits, records requests and detailed lesson plans.

Student Press Law  Center
This nonprofit organization protects the rights of student journalists at universities and high schools and has a legal hotline, all without charge. The website is loaded with expert practical guides to accessing public records and meetings, including rights for students at private universities.

Clery Center
This organization is dedicated to ensuring that college students and their parents are aware of instances of crime on campus.  The Clery Act requires universities to make campus crime information public, including crime logs and annual statistics.

Some school officials will claim just about everything is secret, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Get the facts about what FERPA applies to from this U.S. Department of Education page. And, the Student Press Law Center has several excellent explainers and strategies to counter the misapplication of the la

Sample Open Government Proclamation

Sunshine Week is a time when you as an individual or a civic organization can make a difference by identifying local or state open government shortcomings and asking your public officials to pledge and initiate specific improvements in local or state law and practice.

To assist your efforts, we present a sample Open Government Proclamation [PDF] that you, or your group, can take to your public officials to seek a commitment on open government with specific action that will lead to increased transparency. The PDF contains suggestions on how to personalize it, and of course you can tailor the document as well.

Like all proclamations, it begins with a general statement of the benefits of open government at every level. That is followed by a sampling of open government provisions that brought greater transparency to local and state governments around the country. We offer these as examples of the kind of specific action that may be needed in and appropriate for your community or state.

The Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee, the Indigenous Journalists Association and the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance present this pledge to encourage tribal government officials to commit to transparency on behalf of their citizens and outline specific measures to reach this goal.

The SPJ FOI Committee encourages state government officials to commit to the 2024 Sunshine Week Open Proclamation.

We also hope these examples will inspire ideas for other transparency measures that may be needed in your community or state. We hope you find these useful in considering what sunshine commitments are needed and in crafting a specific proclamation and action pledge to present to your public officials.

Let us know if you are successful by contacting and writing “Sunshine Week Proclamation” in the subject line. If your government’s action was reported by the news media, please include the link(s).

Thanks to Pete Weitzel for drafting the proclamation in 2011

Conduct a Freedom of Information Audit

FOI Audits are a methodical way to monitor compliance and demonstrate weaknesses in state FOI laws.

The Society of Professional Journalists has compiled everything you need to conduct an FOI audit: training, do’s and don’ts, document ideas for your requests and more.