Freedom of Information Act

 Quill for The Society for Professional Journalists

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.

For freelancers, the challenge not only presents itself in requesting the adequate information but also the representation of a legitimate news source.  As we do not work for a specific company, the approval of requests can get tricky—as they should not because we are still citizens requesting information we have the right to know.  But, after a story has been green-lighted, the rigorous work of finding facts and reports can become time consuming and frustrating.

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.

Getting detailed information of a story from the editor is a great step in starting your FOIA requests, as the more details we can write about what we need, the greater chances are of getting the facts and figures we want.  In some cases, having the editor help draft a FOIA requests can set a freelancer on the right track for their story.

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.  

In order to maximize FOIA, a freelancer, at any stage of establishing themselves, should always look into the sources the outlet has to offer regarding the right to request open public records, similar to LaFleur, who puts in requests for her entire newsroom. If the newsroom or editorial staff has a designated person to submit FOIA requests or the like, freelancers should use these resources as the story is specifically for the publication.

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.  The Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. organization is specializes in FOIA as most investigative pieces require looking into trends and facts from the past.  With access to other investigative journalists and the organization’s resources, a freelance journalist can request public records with help from experienced journalists to include great detail and specificity.

To get more information on the Freedom of Information Act, log on to www.foia.state.gov