Live Blog: FOIA How-To Session

By Kara Tabor

Welcome to the live blog of our FOIA How-To Session

Our featured presenter today is Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and associate professor at the University of Missouri. 

"None of you should graduate from this university without having made one or two open records requests," Horvit says.

Horvit teaches the Investigative Reporting class and says that students should make records requests while still in school so that they can learn by going through the process before they go out into the workplace.

He says working with data and journalism begins with the right attitude. This attitude consists of having a document state of mind, assuming that the information you need is public, assuming it's free and searching for the databases behind the documents.

Horvit says to always assume that public entities that may be involved in or important to your reporting have the data that is needed.

Intimidation because of assumptions about the difficulty of obtaining the data or costs are barriers that reporters shouldn't let stop them, he says.

Horvit explained that FOIA only applies to information from the federal government and does not apply to states. He says to make sure to cite the state records request laws for whatever state you are in when making a request. The documentation for state-based records requests can be found with an online search.

He does say that there is some information cannot be obtained through requests, including social security numbers of employees, personnel records and health records.

When it comes to the initial request, Horvit says requesting information may be fairly quick and easy, but can get delayed after the initial request is made if the agency or entity stalls.

Open records requests don't always have to be a formal written request--in some states they don't have to be written down.

"The journalists who fail are the journalists who assume it doesn't exist, I'm not going to get it," Horvit says.

Some of the practical tips Horvit mentioned include carry a flash drive everywhere and taking photos of documents at public offices with a cell phone camera.

Resources that can be used for help with records requests include Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Student Press Law Center. National Freedom of Information Coalition and FOIA Machine. FOIA Machine is an online tool that writes records requests.

Horvit says the way you word your request is very important and that request that is not specific could result in an overview rather than an in-depth breakdown and presentation of the information that is really being tracked.

One student attending the event brought up a situation where she was told by a police department it would take 72 hours of work for the department to get information on trespassing arrests. Horvit responded by explaining that sometimes agencies meet requests with responses like the example to delay or to dissuade the journalist making the request.

He proceeded to give his own example of an experience that he had dealing with a police department in Texas. He says sometimes walking through the request blow by blow with agencies can help to get the information of interest.

"Sometimes the way we're asking for information is not in the way the government keeps it," he says.

Horvit suggests to do an interview and learn how specific information is complied and stored to learn how before making a request for information.

He also notes that In almost every state law, except for Alabama, the costs that the agencies or government entities are allowed to charge are documented.

In the sample open records request letter that Horvit is showing, he points out that there are a few key things to include such as:

  • A mention that the information you are requesting "includes but is not limited to..." the materials you are looking for
  • A request to be not charged because the data you are trying to obtain is going to be used in the public interest through your journalistic work
  • A request that the agency informs you of any costs that the request may incur
  • A request for a detailed receipt can drive down the cost because everything has to be broken down and itemized. He says this can often end up driving down the cost of the information because the components of the request and the work behind retrieving the information have to be explained. "Getting public records from an agency is like buying a car--you never pay sticker," he says.
  • A request for the information to be delivered electronically and via email, which also can help drive down costs. Electronic deliver means no shipping and no wait time for regular mail. He says every state law says that if they have it electronically that they have to give it to you electronically.

To top off the request, Horvit says to run your request letters by another person before submitting them!

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