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Using FOIA in your investigative reporting

The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), created in 1966, is an indispensable tool for reporters to understand how the government operates and its interactions with businesses. FOIA requests can provide invaluable insight about communications between government officials and corporate executives, or politicians acting on their behalf. So let’s talk about what it is and how it can help in your reporting.

Why was FOIA created and what does it apply to?

FOIA was created with the purpose to promote access to information about the federal government and allow the public to fully participate in a democratic government. The act gives any person, including non-US citizens, the right to request federal agency records and information, with some exemptions and exclusions. 

FOIA only applies to federal agencies and therefore does not apply to Congress, the courts, state and local governments, nor the office of the President. The list of federal agencies includes the Department of Justice (including the FBI), the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, and Amtrak. 

The nine exemptions involve information that is already protected by other laws, trade secrets, confidential business information, personal privacy, and the like. The three exclusions are related to law enforcement and national security matters for which agencies are allowed to respond to requests stating, “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request” even if a record does exist but is protected under an exclusion. This is different from a glomar response where they will neither confirm nor deny a record’s existence. If a requester does suspect the record exists and the agency is using an exclusion, they can appeal the response either administratively or through the courts to determine the possibility that an exclusion was applied, but not to have the information released.

FOIA as it relates to your state

Although FOIA does not cover local and state governments, each state has laws that are similar to FOIA regarding public records. The National Freedom of Information Coalition has a good guide on how to navigate specific laws by state, as well as FOI resources in each state.

When requesting records you need to be specific about what you want, then follow up and be persistent with your requests. It is advantageous to talk to someone either on the phone or in person, and to build a relationship with staffers at your local federal agencies. Being nice can go a long way to putting you on the fast track to receiving the records you request.

What can you request and how much does it cost?

Even though it may seem like a lot of information is exempt, there is still a lot of information available through FOIA you can include in an investigative report. A good example would be data from the Small Business Administration on PPP loan data. You can even request emails sent on government accounts, text messages on government phones, or notes written on an official’s desk. That means you can request records of meetings with CEO’s or other business executives which may help you piece a story together that the public needs to know. 

It does not cost you anything to submit a letter request for records unless you have to mail or fax requests (yes, some government agencies still use fax machines). However, agencies can charge fees for things such as photocopies or a staffer’s time, but you can request a waiver if you can show that the information is ‘for the public good.’

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press created the iFOIA tool to help journalists file more effective open records requests. Check out their template and submit your first letter request today!

Check out more on the FOIA wiki.


  • Julianne Culey

    Julianne is the Assistant Director of the Reynolds Center with expertise in marketing and communications and holds a master's in Sociology from Arizona State University.

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