Using FOIA can be Challenging – But Also Lead to Powerful Journalism

By Chris Adams

The media – and the public in general – have a potentially powerful law at their disposal to pry open records from federal agencies. But as every reporter who has sent off a Freedom of Information Act request knows, a law on the books doesn’t mean records on your desk.

Reponses can be maddeningly inconsistent by agency or request. As Adam Marshall of the legal advocacy group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes: “Either you’ll get it tomorrow, or you’ll get it in a couple years.”

So one of Marshall’s first tips is to prepare for those delays; in some cases, there’s no way around them.

But there are other strategies that can help journalists use the law to unearth valuable information through FOIA.

“Even though there are a lot of challenges and obstacles and frustrations involved in FOIA, it really does lead to incredible stories,” Marshall says.

Recognize what the law does and doesn’t do: It applies to “records” that already exist – you can’t demand they create something new for you.

Know how to ask: Agencies and departments have specific rules and procedures for filing requests; follow them. Be as specific as possible, so a government employee can locate the records with reasonable effort.

Try to get fees waived and the responses expedited: Reporters can ask for fee waivers; if you will pay reasonable copying fees, indicate the limit of how much you’re willing to spend.

Recognize other avenues: State public records laws are, obviously, all over the map in terms of what they offer. But they are almost always faster than the federal FOIA. One compelling story, from Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington Bureau, used public records laws to pry open transportation records for work on the dangers of moving oil shipments across the country’s railways. (Tate’s work won the National Press Foundation’s Feddie Award.)