Teach me how to FOIA. Teach me, teach me how to FOIA.

F. O. I. A.

The four letters that every journalists loves to hear, and the four letters that public officials (more often than not) fear the most. But I can’t help but love them anyway.

Compared to other more seasoned journalists, I’ve filed relatively few FOIA requests. But there’s such a (dorky) sense of accomplishment that comes with requesting information you might otherwise not have had the chance to obtain.

Maybe that’s why the FOIA session at the recent SPJ Reporters Institute was one of my favorites. Michael Morisy, the founder of MuckRock.com, provided some great information on how to dig deeper and get the most of FOIA requests. Some (probably obvious), but extremely helpful information will follow:

  • Look for items in one document that will lead to others
  • Constantly send out FOIA requests (You can only get better with practice)
  • The more specific the request (including key words/phrases/dates/etc.) the more likely it is that you’ll get a response
  • Confirm the correct person actually received the request
  • Be sure to follow up if you don’t get an update or response within the stated timeframe
  • Know the public records law in your coverage are

I know these things sound like common sense. But for someone who had little to no experience filing FOIA requests before getting my first job out of college, this information was extremely helpful. And since attending the session, I’ve become more tuned in to items in documents (whether or not they were obtained by a FOIA request) that could lead to FOIA requests or that simply generate story ideas.

The value of public documents seems to be overlooked in many places that don’t focus on investigative reporting. I mainly cover local government, so this is my prime opportunity to get the most out of public records. And I can wait to dig into the piles upon piles of documents that will lead to other documents and (hopefully) produce some great investigative pieces.

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