USE FOIA TO BREAK THROUGH YOUR STORY’S WALL
Occasionally, a journalist will be lucky enough to have the perfect story just fall in their lap. You get a hot tip, do your research, land an interview, only to hit a wall come interview time. Dealing with a shy (or just plain difficult) source can put a strain on your story or even stop it in its tracks. But in some cases, you can turn to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get the facts you need to make the front page.
Established in 1967, FOIA grants the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. This act comes in handy for journalists when sources aren’t exactly cooperating with a story, as was the case with Ed Balint of The Repository. When he received a tip that a local law enforcement officer was writing citations and making arrests at a record-breaking rate all while having a suspended license, he requested valuable records that provided the information he needed.
“Although the police chief answered questions about the officer who had been working while his driver’s license was suspended, the chief would not disclose what discipline he issued, explaining it was his policy not to publicly reveal such information,” Balint says. “However, the nature of the discipline was in the officer’s personnel file, so I reviewed those records. I also requested and received records from the Alliance Law Department listing the cases in which the officer in question had made arrests or issued traffic citations while working without a valid license. That provided a window into the type of law enforcement work the officer was performing during that time period.”
If, like Balint, your FOIA requests are fruitful, always allow your sources the chance to respond to your findings. Not only is this good practice in fair journalism, but it can also be the leverage you need to get even more newsworthy information.
Using FOIA as a journalist allows you to keep those in power in check, making sure they are serving the community fairly and with justice. Whether it’s by making sure law enforcement officers are following their own rules or charities are using their funds appropriately, FOIA can help you keep the public informed.