The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law that provides the media—and the public—the right to request access to records from federal government agencies. In addition, state and local governments in all 50 states (and in Washington, D.C.) have state open records laws that are similar to the Freedom of Information Act.
As a freelance journalist, it’s important to know how to use government records to your advantage—often, relying too much on official sources or Google is a recipe for making mistakes or missing a big story right under your nose.
That’s why we’ve put together a quick and dirty guide for making use of the FOIA. It’s a big topic, so we’re sticking to the basics. By the end of the guide, you should know how (and why) to file a public records request.
Why file a records request?
Information from public records can not only help you find new stories to write, it can help enhance stories you’re currently writing. It allows you to verify information from sources or to back up your own hypotheses, creating a clearer picture of what is going on within a government organization or a specific area that you’re covering. Public records can also help you find information that you’re not likely to get from official sources or their PR flacks.
Public records requests have been used to track FBI spy planes, gain access to Hillary Clinton’s emails, uncover racially charged emails that got police and court officials fired in Ferguson, and more. (Note that some of these required lawsuits in addition to the requests. We’ll discuss that a little later). I once used a FOIA request to uncover a law firm that left enough of a paper trail in its web copy to inadvertently out a client as having been under investigation by the FTC. Former Contently intern Gabe Rosenberg used a local public records request as part of his reporting on lead exposure in Allegheny County.
Aside from straight reporting, public records requests can be used to satisfy your own personal curiosity. FCC complaints about television shows are quite amusing, something that Gawker capitalizes on regularly. I once filed a public records request because I was curious if there were any public records about a police officer who harassed me close to a decade ago; turns out there were quite a few other complaints.
The bad news
Unfortunately, filing public records requests can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. Finding the correct information for an agency isn’t always easy, and different laws apply to different agencies. If you’re hoping to meet deadlines on stories based on FOIA docs, that can be a difficult feat, as agencies often stall, heavily redact data, or ask for large sums of money—so much so that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit digital rights group) started offering Foilies awards last year “to recognize some of the most absurd, frustrating, and outrageous interactions with the government” experienced by the government transparency community.
Reporters have had so much trouble with Freedom of Information Act requests that they even testified before Congress. In fact, people often take public records requests to court. A couple of recent examples include activist Phil Mocek, who is suing the Tacoma Police Department over a heavily redacted Stingray non-disclosure report, and Tony Webster, who is suing the city of Bloomington for withholding metadata.
So if you think you can file a records request today and have a story ready to publish next week, be aware that things normally won’t work on your schedule.
A step-by-step guide for filing a request
Now that we understand the challenges, it’s time to actually file a public records request. I’ve created a step-by-step process that hopefully should make this sometimes complex process manageable.
1. Figure out which specific piece of information you are looking for and what agency or agencies are most likely to have that information. If you’re not sure who has the data you need, you’ll definitely need to do your homework by speaking with industry experts, public interest groups, or even other reporters.
If your request is overly broad, it’s likely that it’ll get sent back to you with the request to narrow it down. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the agency is stalling—it could be that it just don’t know where to look. Sometimes you can ask for an index that’ll help you figure out exactly where that information is stored.
Asking for the same information from multiple agencies can help speed up the process—if one agency is stalling, for example, or maybe even legitimately doesn’t have access to the data, you can circumvent them without having to start over from scratch.
2. Before making a request, search online to make sure the information isn’t already posted on that agency’s reading room. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of public data that is newsworthy, but nobody’s pored through and written about it. Besides, seeing what is already out there can help you narrow down what you’re looking for specifically.
3. Now that you’re ready to make your request, it’s time to buckle up and write down the request in an email or a letter (I prefer letters, but it depends on the person). You’re going to have to include a lot of detail: the information requested, the dates when it was maintained, and so forth. Make sure you describe the records well enough so that the person seeking them can find them without an excessive amount of searching.
4. Include the best way the organization can reach you (email and a phone number as well as a mailing address, if possible) and the preferred medium in which you’d like to receive the records, such as electronic files via email, paper records sent via standard mail, and so on.
5. You’ll also want to include how much you’re willing to pay in fees, or if you’d like to request an exemption because your request is in the public interest. (Many agencies allow an exemption for media if the purpose is to disseminate the information, and educational exemptions are often allowed as well.) Make sure to let the agency know that it should contact you ahead of time if the fees would exceed the amount specified.
6. Your letter should also specify the amount of time in which you expect to hear back from the agency—often there are regulations requiring them to answer within a specified amount of time, after which you’ll need to follow up.
In addition, some agencies have specific regulations on how your request should be sent, which can typically be located on their websites or through a quick phone call. For example, the Federal Trade Commission asks for “Freedom of Information Act Request” to be written both on the mailing envelope and at the top of the letter. Make sure to check the website for the agency you’re trying to reach (or pick up the phone) if you need help figuring out who to address the letter to or if there are other regulations.
Tools to help
Another helpful tool is MuckRock. It’s not free—it starts at $20 to file four requests—but it can automate a lot of the process and take care of follow-ups for you. MuckRock’s contact database has thousands of agencies, and so can take the legwork out of looking up some of the specific details about who to contact or what law to refer to or how long to wait before following up. You can also pore through current requests and even clone them as a starting point for our own requests. Professional accounts have additional features, such as allowing you to embargo requests.
What if I don’t get what I need?
As you’ve probably gathered, making the request itself is just part of the work. Following up on the request is where the real legwork comes in.
Most FOIA requests take at least 20 business days for a response, and agencies will often ask for an extension. It’s possible to attempt to expedite a request, especially if it’s part of a breaking news story that you’re reporting on, but this certainly isn’t guaranteed.
As I mentioned before, filing a public records request does not guarantee the disclosure of information. In fact, there are many exemptions that agencies can use to refuse access to information for various reasons. These include information classified to protect national security, or that is prohibited from disclosure by federal laws; information related to an agency’s internal personnel rules and practices; trade secrets; some forms of privileged communications; and information that could impact a person’s right to a fair trial, disclose law enforcement techniques, and so forth.
Knowing what the exemptions are for your specific agency can help you determine whether the information you are seeking is included or not—in some cases, information may be withheld or redacted even if it is not exempt.
If you are turned down for your request, you can challenge that response either through an appeals process, or in the courts. If you are considering legal action, consulting with a knowledgeable FOIA attorney is recommended.
For more, check out this list of the top FOIA resources for journalists and curious citizens.
- The Student Press Law Center’s Letter Generator (for local requests)
And if you want to keep up with FOIA news, check out the following:
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