Freedom of Information Act column



 As a citizen of the United States, we are allowed access to information that many Americans probably did not know we could get a hold of as a part of our constitutional rights.  As journalists, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a vast space of information that is released for public knowledge and provides a great array of background information for stories.

FOIA is an underestimated tool for journalists with its generous wealth of information and accessibility. Created by Congress and implemented through the Federal Communications Commission or FCC in 1966, this act has allowed for many issues to be brought into the limelight for the American people to read and learn about.  But a journalist must know the law and provisions of the act to its full potential to get the groundbreaking information that could always turn out to be a beat of a breaking story.

As a features writer, my use of FOIA is not as frequent as other groups such as Pew Research Center for People & the Press or something simple as Survey Monkey to generate information for stories that may not have a wealth of statistics already listed.  With good, detailed questions, a simple survey can answer questions that can be found useful for a story, and similarly, the correct and detailed use of FOIA can allow everyone from a novice journalist to a seasoned vet to get the best information that was already available to them.

Jennifer LaFleur, the computer-assisted reporting editor at The Dallas Morning News, writes a citizen watchdog column and says the most important thing about using FOIA is not to give up.  “A journalist makes a [public information request] and if they do not push on it, the agency also does not respond to it,” says LaFleur, who puts in frequent requests for her newsroom. 

As journalists, we must not forget that FOIA also relates to state level government as well as federal agencies.  The only difference is that each state has different laws and abides by different response times.  Federally, the agency has to have a turn around in 20 business days.  But in order to get maximum information, it is important to request the information months in advance of its use.  According to a study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government (CJOG) found that in 2007, an average number of days to receive a response from the U. S. Department of Justice fell into a range of 131- 819 days, and similar numbers varied between other agencies.  Because of this, LaFleur advises to know and understand the law.

“When you understand the law, you can make a detailed and appropriate request,” says LaFleur, “and by knowing the law, you can also appropriately question on what grounds the agency might be upholding certain information.” With well done research and information on not only what you are looking for, but also where to send your information, can help expedite requests. On the federal level, the names of the persons who handle FOIA requests are listed on the agency’s Web site. 

But since security has tightened since 9/11, fewer requests are being made and therefore, giving some agencies a lenient way out of giving requested information. The study by CJOG cites that 60 percent of requests were fully or partially granted, down 9 percentage points from 1998.   Besides being persistent, a workshop hosted by the Investigative Reporters & Editors, Inc. organization in February 2008 advised that if you have no information from requests, write the very same.  By writing about the lack of information, it forces the lack of cooperation by the federal government to be spotlighted, and therefore the information comes out automatically.

There are many groups that are journalist’s advocates in FOIA, such as The Reporters Committee for Freedom of The Press.  This group helps a journalist with FOIA as it has links to The Open Government Guide and also a FOIA letter generator that can be a useful tool for all journalists.

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