A guide to the FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress in 1966, is an essential part of the public’s right to know about their government. (Photo: Kevin McCoy/Wikimedia Commons)

This week is Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week is a week held annually reminding us of the importance of the public’s right to know. At the core of this is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was signed into law in 1966.

Because of the nature of my work, I have to be selective in the FOIA requests that I file with the US government. Most of the ones that I have written concern UK-US relations, or aspects of British culture that have been popular in America.

Some of them included a request to the FCC of any complaints about Downton Abbey on PBS (there were a few), a request to the State Department for the cost of Winfield House (the US Ambassador’s residence in London), a request to the Department of Justice regarding the Leveson Inquiry and the phone hacking scandal, and a couple of requests regarding Britain’s negotiations to exit the EU, amid the campaign leading up to last year’s referendum.

While a Freedom of Information request can provide an opportunity for a unique story, it can also be a bit intimidating. I may not be a master of FOIA requests, but what I have found as a journalist starting out is that for the most part, filing a request and tracking it is as simple as making that all important phone call for a story.

Here are some tips I have found helpful so you can get better acquainted with FOIA.

  • Keep a paper trail: Keep a copy of the request you send in (contact details are listed by the agency or compiled on this FOIA web site). I’ll usually send mine in by fax and note the date and time that I sent it, and keep it in my files. Also, keep the letters that the agency will send you. That lists the contact information for the office and your request ID to follow up. Finally, keep a record of any personnel in the FOI office you may speak with. If you encounter a problem, that may help expedite or resolve concerns on the agency’s end.
  • Be specific: Don’t be vague in what you ask for – get a specific time period or a specific area. For example, a request to the FCC detailing complaints about all of the Monday night sitcoms on prime time TV is vague. Pinpoint it to a specific program, or perhaps, a specific episode of the program in question.
  • Give context: Explain a little bit of your story and how it correlates with the request. You can write a brief paragraph in your letter about why this is important, or also enclose articles from other sources that points back to your request. Citing is never a bad thing, and it will help the agency better understand the information you’re looking for.
  • Don’t be afraid to follow up: Most FOIA staff I have worked with have been incredibly friendly and helpful, so one phone call inquiring won’t hurt. Just make sure you have your request ID in front of you when you call.
  • Seek advice if there’s a problem: There may be instances where you may not hear anything for months and months. If following up with the agency has not helped, or you go without a response on a timetable, there are resources available to you, including OGIS, operated through the National Archives and Records Administration. If you decide to contact them, explain what you have done and send them a copy of your original request, as well as any correspondence. You’ll receive a letter from a specialist who can do some research for you and figure out the process. Don’t hesitate to follow up with them afterwards for help if you need it.
  • Consider the public interest: Once your request gets processed and you get the data that you need, take time to review it. If you know it will be useful for your story, go ahead and get going. If you decide not to use it, don’t worry – you’re doing the public (and your peers in the industry) a favor by seeing that information is in the public domain.

When you look at the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, at its core is this phrase: “Seek truth and report it.” The phrase however does not apply to politics exclusively – it applies to all of the beats, be it associated with current affairs, sport or lifestyle and culture. Seek truth and report it is the crux of the mission of journalists, in order to help the world be informed, educated and engaged.

Reporting with the help of the Freedom of Information Act is an essential part of the public’s right to know. After all, it isn’t about the journalists who file the request, but those who benefit from the information provided – the audience.

Editor’s note: Lynn Walsh, SPJ president, serves as a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, which OGIS provides administrative support to.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and a contributor to the SPJ blog network. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Generation J Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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