Paul Sturges

Freedom of Information, Journalism and Libraries

This article defines freedom of information as both a legal mechanism and an ethical commitment of the information professions, comparing the FOI environment for librarianship and journalism to assess the support the former can provide to investigative journalism.


Journalism and librarianship share common goals (1). The journalist researches and writes material for publication and dissemination by newspapers, radio, television, web services and other publishing outlets. The librarian provides either direct access to what the journalist writes by acquiring publications and providing public access to the Internet and online services, and by directing researchers to sources not directly accessible through the library. This alliance is further cemented by the library’s ability to satisfy important journalistic research needs. We can consider both professional areas as important contributors to the knowledge industries, or the knowledge society. We can also note that both operate within a conceptual framework that can be described by the term ‘freedom of information’. This is helpful to a certain extent, but it needs further definition. The term freedom of information is capable of at least two distinct interpretations, and the relationship of these to a number of similar terms also needs to be established.

The principle of freedom of information

As used by the library and information professions, freedom of information is an over-arching concept, generous but imprecise, expressing the professional’s rejection of any form of restriction on the circulation of information that might include:
  • censorship, both pre- and post publication,
  • national and official secrecy,
  • suppression of information for private and corporate reasons,
  • developments, financial, technological and social, that create information-poor countries, regions, classes, social groups and individuals, and
  • the perpetuation of ineffective and restrictive public and private information systems and services through practices such as filtering of Internet content.
As such it is closely related to the concept of universal availability of information (UAI) proposed as a wider programme by IFLA in the 1980s to subsume the narrower, but in practice more or less identical, programme concept of universal availability of publications (UAP). In the event, IFLA persisted with the narrower, but better known term.

Freedom of information in this broad sense can be seen as deriving from the much older ideas of freedom of opinion, intellectual freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of expression, which have their historical roots at least as far back as the ancient Greek city states. The First Amendment to the American Constitution in forbidding Congress from ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’ has long been the most effective and inspiring statement of this. Freedom of expression is now widely regarded as a human right, and the UK Human Rights Act (1998) states quite simply that

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

At the same time it is important to note that the UN General Assembly’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1945) by further defining freedom of expression to include the rights

to seek, receive and impart information and ideas

effectively broadens the concept to one of freedom of access to information, not merely expression.

The legislative practice of freedom of information

Legislators use the term freedom of information to refer to a more limited statutory right of access by the public to official information. This concept is closely related to the idea of open government, which also includes observation of meetings by the public, and consultation on planning and decision-making. It is now increasingly discussed within the broad field of information governance. Freedom of information laws have been in force in Sweden since 1766, and in a number of other countries since the late twentieth century. Recently, there is a UK Freedom of Information Act (2000), which, although not in full force until 2005, will give the public the right of access to information held by ‘public authorities’.

It is, however, the US Freedom of Information Act (1966), which represents the most notable step towards something like complete openness. The law is important because it provides a robust mechanism for access. Under this law any citizen can write to a government agency requesting full disclosure of information on any topic on which they believe the agency has files, without demonstrating any ‘need to know’. The agency must then respond within 10 working days with details of what it holds, and release the full documentation if it is then requested. This might be an empty right if citizens had little knowledge of which agency might hold the information they sought and even less knowledge of the types of files the agencies held. This is addressed by a requirement that agencies should publish details of their gathering, holding, organising and other information procedures in the Federal Register. Over time the procedures have gradually been clarified and improved. This has enabled researchers to discover and reveal important information on topics as diverse as secret government surveillance of writers and political activists, safety at nuclear power stations, and the enforcement of environmental protection laws. The potential value to investigative journalism of freedom of information law is obvious, but what is the relation of libraries to freedom of information generally?

Libraries and freedom of information

Libraries, except where they might be a repository of official information in a public authority, and this is not the case with many public and other libraries, do not tend to have a formal role in the structures of freedom of information law. The exceptions to this may be some government and official libraries where a broad concept of information management, or knowledge management, has removed the boundaries between internal documentation, subject to freedom of information law, and externally acquired publications, the content of the library.

Members of the library profession in Britain have certainly been recruited to manage the information resources of public authorities prior to the full application of the law in 2005. The expertise of librarians is highly relevant and distinctly different from that of the professional archivists and records managers who have also been given professional opportunities by freedom of information law. Whilst the library profession might argue on this basis that they should be the ones to handle formal freedom of information in their employing authorities, this is nevertheless not generally the case.

What is more generally true is that the ethical commitment of library and information professionals to the broader concept of freedom of information obliges them to promote and facilitate the legal right in any way available to them. For libraries, we can identify four levels of freedom of information-related ideas and activity. These are:
  • A formal commitment to the fundamental principles of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Access to Information, which can be expressed in publicly available documents from professional associations.
  • A continuing commitment from librarians and their professional associations to campaign for these principles and against restrictions on Freedom of Information, nationally and globally.
  • Work on encouraging the development of facilities and processes in libraries to support formal channels for Freedom of Information, as expressed in legislation, for example, the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000.
  • Work to eliminate attitudes and procedures in libraries that might hinder the citizen’s use of the library to obtain full Freedom of Access to Information.
The first two are ethical commitments for the whole profession, relating to the principle of freedom of information, but the third and fourth involve individual librarians setting out to make the principle real in their own institutions, in relation to the legislative definition as much as the general principle. The most obvious aspect arises from the third point, and librarians can, and should be, a key point of access into the formal freedom of information process through the documentation they collect and organise within their ‘public authority’. In strong freedom of information regimes, libraries will be able to stock and make available any document, with full official cooperation and without fear of hindrance.

The fourth point requires a little more explanation. In practice the performance of many libraries in relation to freedom of information can be see as much more ambiguous than fine statements of principle might suggest. The Boston (USA) Public Library, for instance, is justly regarded as the first great public library and a source of much of what is good in the principles on which such libraries are run. It has, however, recently been subject to damaging, though incoherent, criticism precisely on the grounds of its supposed freedom of information role. Reports placed on a website by Don Saklad, a consistent critic of the library, allege that there is

Marginalizing of our cities' public library users/customers/consumers through public libraries reference desks denial or hampering access with innumerable ridiculous bureaucratic barriers of obstacles to legitimately (sic) public municipal and county information needed in order to participate fully, unencumbered and unfettered in local government of municipal and county departments long range planning. (Guide, 2000)

Lurking in this tirade, which has been followed by similar messages from the same source for the last few years at different web addresses, is a series of very serious allegations. They amount to the suggestion that Boston, and by implication, other public libraries too, is not genuinely functioning as a freedom of information institution. Although this paper will not pursue this particular aspect of the question further, the implications of it are explored in more detail elsewhere. (Sturges, 2001)


In principle, journalism certainly shares most or all of the values suggested in the above with librarianship and other professions which contribute to the knowledge society. Of course, some journalism seeks simply to entertain, and on an everyday basis, much journalism is passive. Journalists rewrite press releases and news agency material, they cover regular events in a standardised form, they report the content of briefings and leaks. We have all seen journalists flock to pre-arranged events, push microphones under people’s noses and ask them ‘How do you feel?’ as if a worthwhile answer to such a stupid question was possible.

However, two particular faces of journalistic activity do have a considerable relevance to the freedom of information concept. At one extreme there is the concern, generally frivolous and indeed often prurient, with the exposure of the private life of individuals, usually those who are already famous, but occasionally those who are to most intents and purposes anonymous, ordinary citizens. This is a difficult area. Looked at merely in terms of freedom of information it is clearly as legitimate as any other form of journalism. However, most countries have some form or other of privacy protection legislation that moderates the full force of freedom of information in these cases.

At the other extreme, there is investigative journalism, a professional activity that shares in full the goals implied by freedom of information. Investigative journalists seek to exercise freedom of expression and in doing so, set free information that would otherwise be concealed. In particular, they expose questionable official, corporate and sometimes personal conduct to public attention and criticism. The investigative reporter is expected to follow an issue like a detective, reviewing existing evidence in a critical manner, conducting interviews, and seeking fresh evidence and documentation of kinds that it may be very hard to identify in the first place, and equally hard to access once identified. This kind of work flourishes where the press and other media operate in independence of the state apparatus, and where the system sets out to ensure that commercial, political or other interests do not monopolize communication.

At the same time, very great courage is needed to practice investigative journalism in political systems where such conditions do not apply and the global roll call of those who have died in pursuit of their profession is long. Journalists have not only to protect themselves from those their investigations might offend, they also need to protect those who inform them. Those informants, plus assistants and supporters form a kind of team that might include ‘editors, legal specialists, statistical analysts, librarians, and news researchers’ (Waisbord, 2001).

If we were to think about the types of legislative support that are needed by investigative journalism, freedom of information laws to give them access to official documentation, and some form of protection for their unofficial sources, might rank most highly. On the protection of sources, a rare example of legislation to assist with this is the UK Public Interest Disclosure Act 1999. It is considered a particularly good example of such laws, which is quite remarkable given the justifiably sceptical view taken of Britain as a freedom of information environment. It offers protection for the so-called ‘whistleblowers’: brave individuals who challenge the suppression of information by the system, often at considerable personal risk. An important point about this Act is its title: whether a disclosure of information is in the ‘public interest’ is the key test of whether investigation-based news stories are justified. It is quite clear that even librarians might on occasion be faced with the dilemma as to whether to reveal information that could damage their employing organisation. In such cases they have to apply the same ‘public interest test’ that other informants might apply, and which would be deliberated in the courts of an open democratic country.

Ethical difficulties of journalists

In an ideal world, with the right legislation in place, investigative journalism would have the scope to make an important contribution to society on a regular and consistent basis. In practice difficulties emerge even, or particularly, in open political systems. Journalism is potentially corrupted, both by rewards for silence or writing misleading stories, and by the search for the fame that can come with journalistic success. The following discussion is based on a number of unattributed newspaper stories, but the content is firmly in the public domain and the debate can be traced right throughout the English-language press and certainly much wider.

The Jayson Blair case in the USA brought the issue of unethical journalism into open debate during the first half of 2003. Blair was a successful young reporter with the New York Times, whose stories on a number of high profile cases, such as the Washington snipers, were published in the newspaper. After suspicions about his methods had been voiced on several occasions without further action being taken, it was clearly established that he plagiarised a story from another newspaper, the San Antonio News-Express. On examining his earlier output, it was found that he had habitually fabricated the content of his stories and had often not even been in the locations from which they were ostensibly sent. The point here is not so much about the professional temptations that faced a young journalist, but the way in which technology facilitated the deceptions and made it harder to resist temptation. The accounts of Blair’s misdeeds describe how he used his cellphone and his computer to carry them out. He had access to electronic versions of the stories filed by other journalists, could research locations from material on websites, and was in a position to communicate with his editors as if he was away following a story.

The scandal over Jayson Blair has provoked a closer look at the ethics of journalistic practices in the New York Times and other newspapers. Another journalist from the New York Times, Rick Bragg, has resigned because of his unattributed use of the work of unpaid assistants. There has also been considerable dispute over the independence of the reporting of the recent Iraqi war. For instance, it has been suggested that reporting by Judith Miller, again of the New York Times, on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was in fact a covert use of the newspaper’s columns by the US government in an attempt to raise support for the war. Ms. Miller’s sources were said to include Ahmad Chalabi, an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime much favoured by the US administration.

The story of the rescue of a prisoner of war, Jessica Lynch, which at the time was used as a morale-raiser for the efforts of the Americans and their allies, has subsequently been seen as less straightforward. Non-American journalists seeking to clarify details of the story that might expose it as a carefully calculated media event rather than a heroic rescue, found it very hard to obtain the information they needed. Most damagingly, it has been alleged that American journalists were unwilling to put military spokesmen under pressure on this and other matters. The investigative spirit in journalism is obviously under threat in a number of ways. This is not necessarily, however, just a problem of journalistic ethics. As suggested in the case of Jayson Blair, the problem may lie, at least partially in the information environment in which journalism has to operate. One or two examples will illustrate what this means.

Plagiarism, for example, is something that infects the sources of information in a particularly damaging way. Take the writer’s own recent experience as an examiner reading student assignments and identifying possible plagiarism in a number of these. One simple way of testing the truth of the suspicion is to take a particularly distinctive phrase from the suspect passage and put it into an Internet search engine with quotations marks around it. In this case the technique produced just four hits. Two of those were a single paper that appeared legitimately on both sites. It contained the offending paragraph word for word (indeed, the quoted part ended ‘as follows:’ and the student had not bothered to plagiarise the list that did indeed follow).

The other two hits were even more interesting. One site provided an attributed quote from a source which had marginally plagiarised the passage in question, including taking a number of unattributed phrases from it. The final site also had the whole of the original passage, but as a quotation. However, this was not attributed to the author of the paper from which the student copied, but to a pair of joint authors in another publication. The dating of the various passages confirmed that the source from which the student had obviously copied, was itself an almost total plagiarisation of these joint authors. This type of small-scale self-serving dishonesty clearly pervades the very Internet from which so much research material is enthusiastically obtained by honest researchers and plagiarists alike.

There is, however, much larger scale deception built into seemingly reliable sources. What might charitably be called the politicisation of information provides good examples. There is discovery in 1996 of human remains, subsequently dated at 7300BC, at Kennewick, Washington State, USA, for example. (Piper, 2002) The remains have been the subject of a legal struggle between Native Americans seeking to give them a traditional burial and anthropologists who wanted to preserve them for scientific purposes. This is a legitimate dispute, but anyone using search engines for Internet information on the topic would be very likely to discover the Kennewick Man News site (New Nation, 2002), which denies the Native American origins of the skeleton in favour of an argument that Europeans were the first true occupants of North America. The significant thing is that the site also provides links to various White supremacist resources.

At the very least, caution is required when using such material. Similar unprincipled use of information can also be traced to governments. In February 2003 the British government issued a dossier purporting to show that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of being launched at an enemy at 45 minutes notice. Using more sophisticated searches than the small one outlined above, journalists were able to identify the sources of this dossier. These turned out to be a number of published and semi-published documents including an American PhD thesis, rather than the original intelligence reports that might have been expected to be the source of such a dossier. When the sources available to journalists are as corrupted as this, the need for skilled investigative work and the difficulties in its path are both obvious.


Although journalists and librarians both work within the freedom of information paradigm, their ethical domains are not shared to the same extent. This is partly a function of the character of the professions themselves. People enter librarianship to earn a living, to be useful and to avoid, rather than to seek, public exposure. People enter journalism to earn a living and to be useful, but in the light of public attention. The former tends to produce a purer ethical climate, whilst, as we have shown, the latter is potentially diseased.

The investigative journalist can, of course, turn for inspiration to relevant codes of journalistic ethics as guidance through the obstacles and temptations of their controversial professional area. The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, has an excellent code, the preamble of which sets out the core values of the profession as follows –

Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialities strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. (Journalistic Ethics, 2002)

All of this is fully within the definition of the idea of freedom of information sketched out at the beginning of this paper. Yet, statements in codes of ethics are important, but they are seldom sufficient in their own right. Assistance in maintaining ethical standards from as many sources as possible is also valuable. It is in this area that the library and information profession is capable of providing some help to the journalist. The American Library Association’s code of ethics provides perhaps the clearest commitment to freedom of information to be found in the profession’s many codes, when it says,

We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

The clarity of this commitment, though it may bring other problems with it, makes a kind of promise that any citizen, the journalist included, can expect to find libraries a totally dedicated freedom of information zone.

The evidence that this promise is to be believed is not in the code of ethics, like that of the ALA, itself: that might be just rhetoric. There are many ways to show that the profession means its commitment to a full definition of freedom of information. To continue with the quality theme present in most of this paper, the profession has taken a great deal of trouble to clarify the difficult issues arising from the identification of quality information on the Web. Cooke’s work on evaluating websites (Cooke, 2001) can stand as just one recent example of this strong tradition, and similar cases could be built on the basis of other aspects of the ethical commitment of librarians. What librarianship can offer journalism is not only technically appropriate research support, but an ethically clean environment in which to pursue useful investigations. In this way librarianship can help fulfil both professions’ freedom of information aspirations.


This essay is a version of a presentation given by invitation at the IFLA Government Information and Official Publications Section’s 2nd Eastern European Seminar on Government Information for the People, held during the Crimea 2003 Conference, Sudak, Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, Ukraine, June 11th 2003.


Cooke, A. (2001). A guide to finding quality information on the Internet: selection and evaluation. London: Library Association Publishing.

Guide to Problematical Library Use. (2000) (Visited 2.8.00)

Journalistic Ethics (2002). Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. (Visited 2.9.03)

New Nation (2002). Kennewick Man News. (Visited 9.11.02)

Piper, P.S. (2002). Web hoaxes, counterfeit sites, and other spurious information on the Internet. In: Mintz, A.P. ed. Web of deception: misinformation on the Internet. Medford, NJ: CyberAge Books. pp.1-22.

Sturges, Paul (2001) The library and freedom of information: agent or icon? Alexandria 13(1) pp.3-16.

Waisbord, Silvio (2001) Why democracy needs investigative journalism. (Visited 2.6.03)