Freedom of Information

Whether it’s at the local, state or federal level, we, as members of the public have a right to certain information. I believe in our state open record laws and federal FOIA. Not sure what FOIA is or how to use your state laws? Check out the National Freedom of Information Coalition and read about my continuing fight for a more open and transparent government below.

FOIA: Fun-ongoing-interesting-activities

This blog was originally published for the story written for the Radio Television Digital News Association.

With deadline after deadline in a TV newsroom it can be laughable to think anyone would have time to file a freedom of Information act request.

On top of taking the time to file it correctly, there is always the time it takes to find the correct person to send it to, knowing what to ask for and of course waiting and keeping track of the response itself.

While a time crunch is a plausible excuse, it shouldn’t be yours. Here are some tips I have learned along the way on how to use the Freedom of Information Act and state-level public information laws to develop enterprise stories and add some spice to dailies.

1. Prepare early

This may sound like a no-brainer but sometimes it helps to be reminded. There are certain documents that are filed on the same date every year-campaign finance reports, conflict of interest reports, etc. Keep a calendar of when the documents are due and prepare requests ahead of time that can be sent first thing on the due date.

2. Subscribe to e-mail lists

It can be annoying to have a inbox flooded with newsletters, but remember it only takes one click to delete them. Subscribe to what corresponds to your beat. E-mail newsletters will show you reports that are coming out, big trials, etc. Reports often stem from audits-request it. You may have a summary of the trial but why not request the whole court document?

3. Request databases

Whether it is a salary database or a contract database, the information listed inside can be invaluable time and time again. Once you put in the request make sure you have access to those databases at all times. Details like salary, hire dates, contract totals a company has with a city or other government entity always add to the story and can help set your story a part from the competition.

4. E-mails/communication

Was there a little argument at the City Council meeting? Heard rumors about construction bids being approved “in the dark?” Request all communication records: e-mail, written, phone, etc. from the players involved. Don’t forget about personal schedules, calendars, personal cell phones, personal e-mails … .

Make reporting life a little less hectic: Manage FOIA requests

A blog originally written for the Radio Television Digital News Association

Freedom of Information Act requests and the state equivalent requests may not be everyone’s favorite, but they can be worth it. Unfortunately the requests are not always that easy to keep up with and can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

Here are some ways to make requesting documents more manageable that I use on an almost daily basis. This is the second of a series of tips I use to help keep my life a little more orderly and less overwhelming. Last week it was phone calls, this week it is FOIA and public information requests.

Create a spreadsheet. I would recommend a personal one and a newsroom-wide one. If you create it in Google docs it can be accessed anywhere, making it easy to pull up anywhere and anytime by anyone you give access to. Important things to include:

  • A response deadline (different in every state)
  • What the request was for (I usually copy and paste the exact wording from my request)
  • When it was submitted (can be crucial when writing the actual story and makes it easier than searching through e-mail)
  • Format of request (e-mail, standard mail, etc.)
  • Result of request (could turn into an interesting story itself!)

Create a calendar. You can create a separate calendar within your calendar or just include it in your personal calendar. I set dates for myself to remind me of when deadlines for campaign finance reports are due, state test results, etc. This way I do not have to remember, my calendar does it for me. This is great if you cover a specific beat and they talk about a report coming out or an upcoming audit, mark it on your calendar so you remember to ask for it.

Follow-up with phone calls, e-mails. Sometimes, in the case of investigations especially, you know there will be a report and you may have to put in a formal request for it, so why not have it ready? I create reminders either on my phone or on a calendar that are re-occurring (every few days or weeks) that remind me to check in on an investigation or story that I want the final report of. Find out who is in charge and ask them when they think it may be done and tell them you will continue to check in with them about it in order to get the information. In the reminder you can even have a draft e-mail of the request ready so that if you find out the investigation is done while out on assignment you do not have to worry, you just have to change the date and hit send!

Be aware of what is going on in the world, state, country. When a story is not breaking, it can sometimes be better utilized when it relates to the time of year or events going on in your community. Keep that in mind while thinking of FOIA requests and stories in general. If you saw a great story by a reporter in another state or region of the country, think and see if it can be duplicated where you are. Also, people tend to think of certain things during certain parts of the year: vacations during the summer, donations during the holidays, etc.

Stop by their office. If you are going to be in the same building as an agency you submitted a request to, stop by and see them. I even send them an e-mail sometimes telling them I will be stopping by and would love to look at the documents if they have them ready. It doesn’t always work but sometimes a visit in person can be the little push they need to get you the information more quickly.

How do you make your public information request more manageable? Tweet me@LWalsh or send me an e-mail: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

Brush up on FOI skills — and use them

Sometimes hearing or just seeing “FOIA” can put you in a tizzy.

Yes, the Freedom of Information Act and similar state laws can be hard to work through. And yes, it is a law, which can be intimidating on its own. But it doesn’t have to be.

In my newsroom I am constantly asked questions about FOIA and our state public records laws. I don’t mind and love to help, because it has become an area of focus for my career. Also, I understand that not every journalist gets the time to properly navigate and explore what FOIA and state public information laws can do for news coverage.

The one thing I am most surprised about is how many journalists are unaware of the process and basic rights these laws provide to not just journalists, but the public.

Click here to read the full blog for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Follow up on your FOIA requests

Like many journalists, finding answers is a daily task of mine. Sometimes that means phone calls and sometimes that means more formal requests, using FOIA.

The Freedom of Information Act allows me and others to gain access to documents that let us know what government officials and entities are doing. National and state access laws exist so we can know what our tax dollars are paying for, among other things.

When I submit a FOIA I expect the laws in place to followed. If information exists, I am entitled to receive it unless it falls under an exemption. If it does, the agency is supposed to tell me so.

So, with all of these expectations and a lot on the line, it’s important to keep track of your requests and stay on top of them, no matter how frustrating or hard it may be.

And hey, don’t just take my word for it, here are a couple examples of how doing just this has recently paid off for me.

Click here to read the full blog for the Radio Television Digital News Association

Revisiting an IRS FOIA request: Did the government do it’s due diligence?

When I submit a FOIA I expect the laws in place to followed. If information exists, I am entitled to receive it unless it falls under an exemption. If it does, the agency is supposed to tell me so.

A FOIA request from 2010 came back into play for me last week.

Yes, 2010 was a couple of years ago, but the recent IRS allegations regarding possible “anti-tea-party” policies being employed had me searching my email inbox.

Click here to read the full blog for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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