Enterprise journalism

FOIA Requests turn hunches into stories

GateHouse Media emphasizes the use of FOIA requests in GateHouse newsrooms through its best practices program. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s story highlighted below is an example of the great work that GateHouse newsrooms produce while taking advantage of the Freedom of Information Act.

An enterprising reporter knows that you can’t passively wait for a great story to land on your lap. Sometimes, you have to look under metaphorical rocks until you find it.

That’s where Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests come in.

These requests are a valuable tool for watchdog journalists invested in keeping powerful parties in check, and in making sure the public’s money is being spent responsibly.

That doesn’t just mean that FOIA requests should target government or law enforcement agencies. In a recent investigative piece, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune called out a nonprofit whose CEO’s salary had tripled while the organization reported a deficit of more than $785,000.

The process was relatively simple: Sarasota reporters noticed a charity in financial trouble. They wanted to know more, so they submitted FOIA requests to obtain the organization’s tax forms. A look at the numbers there revealed both the full extent of the deficit, as well as the perplexing increase in the CEO’s salary.

Finally, they asked questions. After they had the numbers, they pursued context. Interviews led to additional FOIA requests, and by the time the story was filed, it included four separate documents obtained through FOIA.

Not every story requires four FOIA requests. Not every FOIA request proves fruitful. But often enough, a FOIA request will reveal a gem of a story. Just remember: 1) key an eye out for a potential story or angle; 2) take advantage of FOIA; 3) flesh out your story by asking questions and seeking context.

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