Access Attitudes: A Social Learning Approach to Examining Community Engagement and Support for Press Access to Government Records

Article excerpt

This survey-based study examines public attitudes toward press access to government records, deriving a political model predicting support for freedom of information based on social learning theory and testing whether support for press access is best explained by societal power, media importance, or political attitudes. Findings indicate that support is tied most closely to political attitudes such that the strongest predictors are community engagement and support for press rights, regardless of age, income, education, newspaper reading, or other variables. The results offer insights to help journalists, scholars, and citizens understand - and perhaps influence - public attitudes toward freedom of information.

Democracy relies on political participation, aided through an informed electorate able to gather information about its government.1 Citizens count on journalists as proxies to access police reports, city budgets, bridge inspections, property tax records, and other public documents.2 Yet, in recent decades increased government secrecy through legislation,3 court rulings,4 and policy changes has severely restricted press and citizen access to records.5 As a result of increased secrecy, journalists say they are unable to adequately monitor government6 and some express worry that the public does not notice - or care.7

Public opinion toward open government is likely to influence policy decisions, including federal and state legislation, responsiveness to public records requests by officials, and court decisions.8 In recent years the public has demonstrated increased support for secrecy because of fear of terrorist attacks9 and privacy invasion.10 Little research, however, has examined how people think about access to public records and what factors are related to support and nonsupport. A few studies have identified basic demographic correlates of support for access," but they have been limited by a lack of psychographic and political variables, samples not representative of U.S. adults, and little theoretical guidance.

This study adds to the literature by employing two national random-digit dialing phone surveys of U.S. adults to identify predictors of support for access, with a focus on political attitudes and guided by social learning theory.12 Social learning theory suggests that motivation is key to attitude change, and the more relevant the subject, the stronger the person's attitudes toward the subject.13 People who are engaged in their communities and politics may see the value of access to information, including public records; people who are disengaged might care less about government documents.

Understanding support for open government and the relation to political attitudes is important given the steady decline in civic engagement during the past thirty years and the potential ramifications for democracy and political participation.14 Results from this line of research might help journalists, librarians, scholars, public officials, and citizens better understand why the public favors or opposes government transparency, and perhaps take action to increase support. In the end, greater enthusiasm for access could lead to stronger freedom of information laws, helping citizens become better informed and strengthen democratic selfgovernance.

Literature Review

Support for Press Access. "Support for press access" is defined as an attitude expressed with a degree of agreement or disagreement toward the news media's ability to acquire public records.15 Public records can include any paper or electronic document held by local, state, or federal government agencies that is available for inspection by journalists or citizens. Public administration scholars also study this general area, usually framed as "support for government transparency."16 Research in freedom of information primarily has focused on legal analysis and describing the state of access in the United States and internationally. …