The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool for journalists, granting a generous wealth of information and accessibility. Created by Congress and implemented through the Federal Communications Commission in 1966, the act has allowed for many issues to be brought to light. But a journalist must know the law and provisions of the act to its full potential to get the groundbreaking information that could turn out to be the heart of a story.
For freelancers, the challenge is not only requesting the information, but also the representation of a legitimate news source. We are not traditionally employed, but that shouldn’t complicate our requests for information. We are still citizens requesting information, and we have a right to do so. But after a story has been green-lighted, the rigorous work of finding facts and reports can become time-consuming and frustrating.
A good first step for freelancers is getting detailed information from the story’s assigning editor. The more details we can write about in FOIA requests, the greater chance we have of getting the facts and figures we want. In some cases, having the editor help draft FOIA requests can ease the process of getting a freelancer on the right track.
Jennifer LaFleur, a computer-assisted reporting editor at The Dallas Morning News, writes a citizen watchdog column and says people using FOIA must persevere and not give up on their requests.
To maximize FOIA, freelancers should look into the resources their assigning publication offers regarding requests for public records. For example, LaFleur puts in requests for her entire newsroom. If a newsroom or editorial staff has a designated person to submit FOIA requests, then freelancers should take advantage of those resources.
As journalists, we must not forget that FOIA also relates to state government as well as federal agencies. The difference is that each state has different laws.
Federally, the agency has to have a turnaround in 20 business days. But to get maximum information, it is important to request the information months in advance.
A study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found, in 2007, that the average number of days to receive a response from the U.S. Department of Justice was 131 to 819 days, and similar numbers varied between other agencies. Because of this, LaFleur advises journalists to research the law.
“When you understand the law, you can make a detailed and appropriate request,” LaFleur said. “And, by knowing the law, you can also appropriately question on what grounds the agency might be upholding certain information.”
You should research not only the subject you are reporting on, but also where to send your FOIA request. Knowing this information can also help expedite requests. On the federal level, the names of the people who handle FOIA requests are listed on the agency’s Web site.
But since security tightened after 9/11, fewer requests are being made, giving some agencies a lenient way out of giving requested information. The coalition’s study said 60 percent of requests were fully or partially granted, down 9 percentage points from 1998.
An Investigative Reporters & Editors workshop in February 2008 advised that if you receive no information from your requests, you should write about that experience. Writing about denied requests forces the lack of cooperation into the spotlight.
Many groups help advocate for open records, such as SPJ and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The Committee’s Web site has links to the Open Government Guide and a FOIA letter generator that can be a useful tool.
Investigative Reporters and Editors specializes in FOIA, since most investigative pieces require looking into trends and facts from the past. With access to other investigative journalists and the organization’s resources, a freelance journalist can request public records with help from experienced journalists.
To get more information on the Freedom of Information Act, visit www.foia.state.gov.
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