For a law associated with sunshine, the Freedom of Information Act hasn’t had much time in the limelight. Long considered the domain of dogged investigative journalists and crackpot conspiracy theorists, FOIA spent much of the new millennium in the shadow of its much more photogenic younger sibling Open Data. As the world moved more digital and transparency became the default, the idea of citing some arcane legalese to be begrudgingly granted access to records — paper records — seemed such a laughably archaic concept that the whole thing had to be on its way out, replaced by something far more efficient any day now.
And yet here we are, in the middle what feels like a FOIA renaissance. Just over half a century after FOIA was first signed into law — with state-level public records laws quickly following suit – and more people than ever are asserting their legal right to hold government accountable, at both the highest level as well as in their own neighborhoods. Isolation has given way to community, as journalists, activists, and concerned citizens have begun working together to uncover new and exciting ways to uncover what’s being done by ostensible public servants — and by so doing, remind the government just who they’re working for.
For Sunshine Week, we wanted to look at how public records has been behind some of the biggest headlines of the year, and how those stories can inspire a whole new crop of reporting. Each story is linked to examples in MuckRock’s archive of 60,000+ existing requests, so if you like the reporting, copy the request language and file your own! Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but transparency is contagious.
Heavy-hitting national reporting
A memo released to the public accountability groups Open the Government and the Project on Government Oversight revealed that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen had indeed signed off on a policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary.
- Example Requests: Agency memos/communications
Contracts released to the Associated Press revealed the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent almost $3 million on private security for Confederate cemeteries following the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
- Example Requests: Contracts/MOUs
Schedules of several Department of the Interior executives released to reporter Jimmy Tobias reveal the agency’s repeatedly opting to meet with industry groups, lawyers and activists who oppose environmental protections over conservationists.
- Example Requests: Official calendars/schedules
In response to a MuckRock request for the reporting and analysis the Department of the Treasury used to claim that Trump tax cut will generate $1.8 trillion in revenue, the agency produced a one-page memo that had been referenced in the request.
- Example Request: Tax bill analysis
Enforcement records released to the medical journal JAMA revealed that the Food and Drug Administration turned a blind eye to almost a decade of inappropriate prescription and distribution practices for the opioid fentanyl.
- Example Requests: ARCOS database
Light-hearted looks into the federal government
A list of research projects released to the Federation of American Scientists revealed a multi-million dollar program fringe space theories including stargates, invisibility cloaks, and warp drives funded by the Department of Defense.
- Example Request: DARPA FOIA Logs
After noticing what appeared to be trading cards for K-9 units at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at a veterinarian’s office in Virginia, reporter Joshua Eaton obtained a full set through FOIA.
- Example Request: K-9 Trading cards
Photos released to ThinkProgress showed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin enjoying his trip to Fort Knox, including several shots of him and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holding gold bars.
- Example Request: Mnuchin Travel records
Development materials released to Emma Best show the considerations that went into the costume for the Department of Energy’s official mascot for renewable energy, the “Green Reaper.”
- Example Request: Mascot development materials
Federal Communication Commission complaints released to MuckRock show the public outrage from Michelle Wolf’s now-infamous White House Correspondents Dinner remarks.
- Example Requests: FCC Complaints
State-level stories that made an impact
After a request from Vanessa Nason revealed the extent of Juneau, Alaska’s backlog of untested rape kits, the state earmarked $2.75 million to test kits all over the state.
- Example Requests: Rape kit backlogs
Over 500 use of police force reports released to NJ Advance Media were used to create the New Jersey’s first comprehensive database of law enforcement violence.
- Example Requests: Use of force reports
College football concussion reports released to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution show a huge variance in the number of incidents reported — and that many schools don’t track the data at all.
- Example Requests: College football contacts
A copy of the Chicago Police Department’s “gang database” released to the Chicago Tribune revealed over 128,000 people listed as gang members, with some alleged members being well into their 80s.
- Example Requests: Gang validations
Over 200 requests filed by MuckRock related to #AmazonHQ2 bids reveal millions in tax incentives offered to the company, as well as an hostility to public oversight of the process.
- Example Requests: Amazon HQ2 Bids/proposals
Local reporting on the lighter side
Traffic violation data released to the New York Times reveal a marked increase in the number of issued speeding tickets around the release of each film in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise.
- Example Request: Traffic violation data
Financial records released to Tom Nash reveal that the revisionist Civil War drama “Field of Lost Shoes,” written by a Virginia energy executive, received $1 million in public funds from the Virginia Film Office.
- Example Request: Film funding/tax incentives
Photographs released to William Pierce capture an EMS training exercise in Delaware County, Ohio in which volunteers helped simulate a zombie outbreak.
- Example Request: Training exercise photos
Permits and impound lists released to Lucas Larson reveal how cities all over the country prepared for the sudden onslaught of e-scooters.
- Example Requests: e-scooter permits/Impound lists
Press releases and incident reports regarding the dangers of Halloween candy released to Paxtyn Merten revealed a lot of fears over marijuana-infused candies, but no recorded incidents.
- Example Requests: Halloween candy danger press releases/incidents
File your own!
But for all the challenges agencies put up to access records, persistence and creativity often lead to important releases that shed new light on government, our communities, and our country. Visit https://muck.rocks to see a random idea from our new database of public records requests that have worked — and sample text you can use to file similar requests in your community.
JPat Brown is the executive editor of MuckRock, a Massachusetts-based non-profit collaborative news site devoted to giving the public tools to keep our government transparent and accountable.