Sometimes hearing or just seeing “FOIA” can put you in a tizzy.
Yes, the Freedom of Information Act and similar state laws can be hard to work through. And yes, it is a law, which can be intimidating on its own. But it doesn’t have to be.
In my newsroom I am constantly asked questions about FOIA and our state public records laws. I don’t mind and love to help, because it has become an area of focus for my career. Also, I understand that not every journalist gets the time to properly navigate and explore what FOIA and state public information laws can do for news coverage.
The one thing I am most surprised about is how many journalists are unaware of the process and basic rights these laws provide to not just journalists, but the public.
FOIA and state public information laws are there because it has been determined that we, journalists, the public — my mother, your father — have a right to information. These laws do not mean that government agencies can decide to share information with us if they want or that they may provide information. It means they must provide certain information.
Yes, there are stipulations, and there are plenty of exemptions. There’s a lot of information that doesn’t fall into the category of open, but the point remains: We have a right to information.
While it is a right, it’s not one that we can take for granted. We have to fight for it, and we have to exercise our right. Two of the best ways to do that are to be informed about the laws — and then use the laws.
You may think you’ll never have time. Between Twitter, Facebook posting, sending pictures from the scene and then producing a story, where does this fit in? It can fit, and the good news is there are tools and tips to make it easier for you.
First, you need a good understanding of what the laws are. SPJ’s FOI Committee has good online tools for students and professional journalists, including a step-by-step guide to submitting requests and links to sources and resources specific to your state.
Another great way to gain a better understanding of the laws is to explore them when information you request is denied. Let’s say you’re on the scene of an officer- involved shooting and you ask for information about the officer. The spokespeople will not tell you anything. Instead of accepting the “no comment” response, ask why they are not releasing the information. Ask them to cite the section of the law that allows them to withhold the information.
Once you have the exemption, look it up and see if it applies. A lot of times I have found that spokespeople for government agencies will just say “no comment” or not release the information, but when you look at the law they are required to. If you’re being proactive and looking up the laws and know them, you can then tell them that they cannot withhold the information, because the law doesn’t allow them to.
The second thing you can do is use the laws. If you have never submitted a request for information, do it! There are several sites to help you easily write letters. The National Freedom of Information Coalition has example letters for the federal FOIA and for each state. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a FOIA letter generator.
To make requesting the information quicker and easier, I have a standby letter on Google Drive for state and federal requests ready at all times. I can access it from my phone, email and any computer with Internet access. All I have to do is plug in what I am requesting and hit submit. Having it readily available will make it easier for you, and it won’t take as much time.
Need ideas on what to request? Just think back to a recent story you did. Was there something the agency refused or did not answer? Was there something that made you think there could be something more to the story? If so, use these laws to get answers to those questions.
It’s also important to stay on top of requests and make sure you are receiving everything you requested. Do not let them just fulfill half of the request; fight for everything you asked for.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Happy requesting!
Lynn Walsh is the investigative producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach, Fla. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. She is a member of the SPJ FOI & Generation J committees and serves on the board for the SPJ South Florida chapter. Twitter: @LWalsh.