By Valerie Yurk

The Freedom of Information Act is a “truth serum” but the process can be tricky.

Anne Weismann, chief FOIA counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, explained why in a session with Paul Miller fellows. On the side of truth, she said, FOIA is powerful because it’s a statute that agencies can’t ignore. By law, executive agencies are compelled to provide a response to requested information within 20days of the request.

What makes it tricky is that agencies rarely follow the 20-day deadline. When they do respond, sometimes it’s to say they’re withholding documents; other times, the documents they provide are insufficient. When that happens, Weismann said reporters may be forced to use another power under FOIA: suing for relief.

Before suing an agency, however, Weismann said reporters should be aware of the nine FOIA exemptions. If their reasoning to exempt information doesn’t make sense, always file an administrative appeal first.

Knowing the nine FOIA exemptions is necessary, Weismann said, because some of them are a “yield sign rather than a stop sign.”

Even though the law might be on your side, long wait times and heavily redacted documents make the FOIA process frustrating. It’s not atypical to wait over a year for documents, Weismann said, and not everyone has the time or the resources to go to court.

That’s why Alison Young (bio, Twitter), Washington program director for the Missouri School of Journalism and a former investigative reporter at USA Today, said she has a “love-hate relationship” with FOIA.

Young said the best way to not get discouraged by the FOIA process is to keep your requests organized. She keeps spreadsheets to log a request date, agency name, notes, contacts and appropriate follow-up dates.

“FOIA is where you’re going to get exclusive stories that nobody else has,” Young said. “It’s still a very worthwhile tool for prying information out of agencies.”

Some other FOIA tips:

Start by thinking about how federal and state governments are involved with an issue when deciding what information to request.

  • Do thorough research about an agency and its documents before submitting a FOIA request. Weismann advised journalists to contact the agency’s FOIA liaison and ask where information can be found.
  • Be clear and narrow when requesting documents. Don’t assume the person processing the request knows the subject matter.
  • Keep all correspondence with agencies about FOIA requests in one place. Emails, letters and recorded phone calls could be helpful during appeals.