When FOIA Requests Become a Reporting Habit

Walters, Rob
September 2004
Nieman Reports;Fall2004, Vol. 58 Issue 3, p92
This article discusses the filing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the U.S. One critical lesson the York Daily Record's staff learned from its coverage of the 1969 riots and the September 11 terrorist attack is that it is best to be familiar with how to file an FOIA request before information is actually needed. Several Web sites, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, post sample letters or have an FOIA-letter generator. To write a letter, reporters fill in the blanks and click. Some requests are denied because people do not know what or how to ask the government for records. To learn more about the process, the York Daily Record's reporters sent FOIA requests to various government agencies and asked to look at FOIA request logs. Those logs showed what types of records the agencies kept and what types of information the paper could reasonably expect to receive. Reporters also learned to think in a different way. If the federal government issued a report, staffers looked at the footnotes to see if there was a survey or a database that was involved in the publication's preparation. If so, journalists can file an FOIA request for that raw information. In 2002, the York Daily Record set as its goal the filing of 250 FOIA requests. Each FOIA request is a lesson in how the process work and how to use the act successfully. INSETS: Tips About FOIA Filings:;York Daily Record/Sunday News Stories Based on FOIA Requests.


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