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FOIA user’s guide: Six key sources

June 7, 2017

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Public records can be great sources of information for stories. But to get the ones people don't want you to see, the Freedom of Information Act is critical.Credit: Pixabay user stevepb

When a city bids to host the Olympics, it’s big sports news. It’s also a massive business story. Billions are invested, which means companies will vie for it and taxpayers often fund the undertaking. In 2015, Boston Magazine released the actual so-called bid book from the group seeking the Olympics for Boston in 2024. Although there was a public version, the magazine printed the private findings, including “numerous cost estimates, as well as an entire section outlining the bid’s weaknesses.” As a result, the plan was shelved.

Boston Magazine got the document through a FOIA request.

The Freedom of Information Act turned 50 last year. It is usually associated with political and national defense stories, but is also used in business journalism. While it can be tricky to navigate, slow to process and frustrating if an agency denies a FOIA request for documents, the tool is worth learning. Luckily, there are resources to help the uninitiated get up to speed. Here are some for the federal law; many states have their own versions.

FOIA.gov

The Department of Justice hosts the website for the federal Freedom of Information Act. Go to the “Learn” tab for basic information on FOIA requests, such as where and how to make one, including checking if the information might already be publicly available.

FOIAonline

Another government site, FOIAonline, acts as a “tracking and processing tool” for FOIA requests on behalf of 15 different government agencies—including the Department of Commerce, Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Small Business Administration.

FOIAwiki

The site FOIAwiki is a free collaborative resource from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It is designed to help reporters and individuals learn more about the FOIA process. There is a lot of detail on virtually every aspect of the act.

OGIS

The Office of Government Information Services is a FOIA resource as well as ombudsman for the process. Anyone, including you, can ask them for help in navigating filing and following up on a request, including information on the appeals process.

MuckRock

This non-profit collaborative news site has tools and information resources. There are crowdsourcing campaigns to raise funds to cover costs on larger projects (such as the work that led to the Boston Magazine story about the Olympics bid). You can also look at other FOIA requests and then clone one and edit it for your particular needs. If you use the communications tool Slack (and it’s worth getting the free download for this purpose), you can apply for access to the MuckRock channel, where you can find additional help from other journalists.

Jason Leopold

Jason Leopold is a journalist now at BuzzFeed, formerly of Vice, who is legendary in FOIA circles. He has filed thousands of requests over the years and has broken many stories based on what he’s found. This profile from the San Antonio Express-News includes great tips such as how to speed up the process by telling agencies where to look, why a reporter should appeal every request and how to ask for fee waivers to make the process cheaper.

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