Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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New ways to uncover federal agency information

February 20, 2017

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Government information may be harder to access, but diligent investigators have several paths to pursue. (Image by "lucianofiore" via flickr, CC BY 2.0)
Government information may be harder to access, but diligent investigators have several paths to pursue. (Sherlock image by "lucianofiore" via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

One of the developments impacting business reporters early in the new administration is the accessibility of data and information. Various federal agencies reportedly were put on an information lockdown. While every new administration seeks to control the messaging coming out of its agencies, this time the restrictions seem unusually tight.

Given how much government data and analysis is critical to stories about business and the economy, the potential of either a short- or long-term restriction is problematic. Here are some techniques that may help reporters access the information they need.

Explore the archived Obama website

The Trump administration has replaced the Obama White House website, as is normal at any administration turnover. Much of the information that was readily available is no longer on the main White House site. However, an archived Obama site exists through the National Archives, with links that work. Click on The Administration at the top of the site and then the Office of Management and Budget link to find historical tables. Other information on topics such as the Iran Deal and Social Security live there as well. It won’t be updated, but in the short run it’s a good resource.

Use the Wayback Machine

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine keeps a massive set of archived webpages, and shows how they’ve changed over time. If a government agency’s data isn’t available, enter the URL into the Wayback Machine and then choose the latest date that still displays what you want.

Build personal sources

There are signs that some government employees are uncomfortable about the information restriction. Develop sources toward the bottom of the organization: people who might be able to get data to you off the record. Identifying and connecting with the right contacts will take time and research, and you will have to take significant steps to protect a source’s identity.

Learn to love the FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act can be difficult and time-consuming to use well; at times it takes a lawsuit to open records. But it’s an important tool. Look at how the USDA has removed all animal welfare and inspection reports from its website but notes that the records are available via FOIA request. If you cover agriculture, you should probably become familiar with the process. The same could be well be the case in other industries.

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