Tow Tea: FOIA Workshop

On Thursday, November 19, 2015, the Tow Center hosted a Tow Tea workshop on accessing and collecting data and information made available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Guests Shawn Musgrave, from The New England Center for Investigative Reporting’s and Nabiha Syed of BuzzFeed shared their tips and strategies for making FOIA requests.

A FOIA request is a legally binding request to a government agency for an *existing* record, says Syed. A record is data that people keep, so think broadly about it. Data sets count as records in most states, though sometimes FOIA officers don’t know that, and you have to persuade them.

At Buzzfeed, Syed oversees many FOIA requests and finds that robustly written requests get better responses, even though detailed explanations are not required by law.

One quick way to get information is to request a set of records that has been requested before – many offices publish lists of prior requests, says Musgrave. If you can determine who made the request, you can say somethibg like: “I want what ProPublica got for this article.”

Non-profit organizations and advocacy groups are also good resources when you are trying to figure out how to draft your request. Get in touch with them before you file and ask if they know anyone you can contact. As with other reporting methods, Musgrave notes, it helps to do your homework ahead of time – and for data requests in particular, it’s important to get an IT person involved if possible. The panelists both agreed that and being in phone contact with the people handling your request is also key.

Keeping track of your requests also matters. Syed suggests telephoning as soon as you file, just to let the office know you’ve submitted. Every statute has a time period during which the agency has to provide reasonable estimate of the time it will take to fulfill the request.

“Sometimes they might say it will take 20 days,” says Syed,but warned that 20 days is a magical number that is rarely achieved.

“Sometimes, you get a letter and the agency says they it will take to seven months – but you can call every month and ask what’s going on. If it takes a year, stay on top of it. I do FOIA Fridays,” says Syed.

If you simply don’t hear from an agency within the estimated period, says Musgrave, you do have the right to sue for “constructive denial” of the request, though this usually requires a lawyer’s advice.

While filing FOIAs for a particular story makes sense, says Musgrave, if you have a beat you cover, you may simply want to make requests in that topic area.

“If I find a public document referenced somewhere and can’t locate it, I’ll just file for it.”

While FOIA laws operate under a “presumption of openness,” it doesn’t mean you can get access to everything.

Syed pointed out that there are a range of exemption conditions under which your request can be denied. National security and privacy, are big ones, says Syed, but there are some surprising things like the locations of gas and oil rigs. Drafts of things that haven’t yet become policy are also exempt.
That said, one can always appeal a denial and challenge the exemption – you don’t have to take what the government says at face value.

Most of all, Syed and Musgrave agreed, it is important to keep in mind that people who respond to FOIA requests are human. Try to develop them as you would any other source and you will be much more successful.