6 ways to make your FOIA or public records request more effective
With the aid of three FOIA veterans, GateHouse Media’s professional development series recently revealed six things journalists should keep in mind when requesting public records in order to make their requests more effective and less likely to be held up or denied.
Emily Le Coz, GateHouse’s national data projects editor, explained the importance of:
1.) Knowing the law
“It probably sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how few people know their own state’s public records law inside and out.
“In addition to the law itself, familiarize yourself with any court cases pertaining to public records in your state that could help you obtain records from otherwise difficult agencies.”
She gave an example of a recent suit in her native Florida where a court ruled that a person could not be assessed large fees to react the records he’d requested from an agency. The court said that state law requires agencies to keep public disclosure in mind and that the burden of redaction fell on the agency, not on the person making the records request.
Le Coz explained that citing the verdicts of past public records cases or legal opinions about public records requests from state attorneys in new records requests can often make for a much stronger request.
2.) Getting a little help from your friends
Filing your first public records request or filing a request with an unfamiliar agency can be daunting, so asking for advice from a colleague who has more experience with the agency can be particularly helpful.
This can be especially true if you’re trying to file a request in a different city or state from the one you live in — states like Tennessee only respond to records requests from Tennessee residents.
Bonus.) Being persistent
Le Coz gives an example from her experience reporting on GateHouse’s national Sub Nation Pinnacle project when the state of Arkansas refused her initial request.
After some research, she was able to locate a Supreme Court case that ruled that an entity doing business in the state should be allowed to request records under the act. Though Le Coz is a reporter for the Herald-Tribune in Florida, GateHouse Media operates multiple papers in Arkansas.
Le Coz cited the court’s ruling and was later granted her request.
Jim Haddadin, of MetroWest Daily News, explained the importance of:
3.) Calling ahead
“Before you send a request, contact the agency and ask to speak with someone about which records are available and how they’re stored.”
If you’re requesting electronic records, calling ahead can be especially useful for learning how exactly records can be exported and how records are populated in the agency’s database.
4.) Sending multiple requests
While sometimes consolidation can seem like a good idea, Haddadin recommends sending separate requests for each record you are looking for from an agency instead of bundling all of your requests into one.
Seth Robbins, of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, explained the importance of:
5.) Knowing your timeframe
If you know the exact type of information you’re looking for, especially when it’s data, you should feel free to request that information over an extended period of time.
If you’re not quite sure of the exact documents you’re looking for, or if they even exist, you should limit your time frame to a shorter period of time. You’ll see quickly what information is available and avoid being told that your request is too broad.
6.) Paying attention to emails
In many places, emails sent from local and state officials and government agencies are available publicly.
Because all attachments of these emails must also be included, you might uncover attached information that isn’t actually considered public record and might not otherwise be easily accessible.