Freedom of information laws are invaluable resources to reporters covering any beat. The laws provide access to a wide range of government documents, from budgets to emails, and contracts to crime reports.
There are two ways to incorporate freedom of information materials into your reporting: start with the documents, or start with the story.
When you start with the documents, think about which government records might be interesting to see or might contain information that will build a story. Then request them.
Starting with the story can push your coverage to new insights. Think about how the documents can beef up your story. Public records are great sources and are always on the record. Having the records when you start interviewing human sources also gives you better ammunition and makes your story stronger overall.
Documents received from FOI requests have led to countless important stories, including revelations that the federal government turned down millions in international aid after Hurricane Katrina; a troubling lack of transparency about Medicare inspections of health care facilities; trends in thefts by TSA agents at airports; and the FBI’s practice of allowing informants to break the law.
As helpful as FOI laws can be in these types of stories, the process of requesting records can also be tedious and frustrating. Denials are common, and often government agencies fail to respond in a timely fashion. When that happens, it is important to follow up with the agency.
When an agency fails to respond at all, first reach out informally to check on the status of your request. Call or email – or do both – to initiate a dialogue with the agency. At this stage, it is also useful to know your state’s law on required response times for FOI requests. States incorporate those rules with varying levels of specificity, but it can be helpful to remind an agency of its statutory obligations.
If the agency continues to be unresponsive or denies your FOI request, the next step is an administrative appeal, if that is available. All federal agencies have administrative appeal procedures but most states do not. If you can appeal to the agency or to your state attorney general, be sure to follow the procedure carefully. It is your best chance at finding a resolution while avoiding court, but it will also position you better for litigation if that becomes necessary.
If your efforts at informal discussions and formal administrative appeals fail, the last recourse is to sue the government for the records – an expensive, time-consuming and by-no-means guaranteed-successful last resort.
Despite the sometimes difficult process, making FOI requests is still worthwhile. The FOI process can open new lines of communication between agencies and the media, it can be the catalyst for crucial revelations and, ultimately, it can lead to a better-informed public. Records requests can also provide the basis for engaging multimedia packages and graphics to more thoroughly explain issues.
To keep a spotlight on FOI, for better or worse, it is important to include the records requests made for your stories and whether those requests were successful. As the ultimate watchdog of government officials, the public needs to know whether agencies are complying with records requests or whether reform – legislative or elective – is needed, and whether the system is working.