On the health beat, public records can be a lifeline

In honor of Sunshine Week, AHCJ invited organizations devoted to government transparency to write about how their work can help health care reporters. Here is the last of four.

MuckRock, a nonprofit that assists journalists, newsrooms, and others requesting public information, has helped thousands of reporters file public records requests all across America, digging out information from federal agencies and local inspection boards alike.

Time and again, public records break essential stories and shine light on dangerous lapses — but only if someone knows to ask.

Here are some tips on using freedom of information laws to get great stories while juggling everything else you need to get done.

  • The best requests are the ones you don’t have to file. Before you ask, search. Increasingly, agencies are proactively posting information in online “reading rooms.” DocumentCloud provides a wonderful resource to search through as well; everything is from vetted newsrooms, and you can usually easily find more context about documents you find there. You can also search and filter through tens of thousands of public records requests on MuckRock. Finally, see if agencies might have any good documents hiding on their website using a this quick Google trick: Restrict your search to the agency’s domain and various filetypes like PDF, XLS, and PPT. Example query on Google: “keyword site:agency.gov filetype:pdf” It can be amazing what you’ll find.
  • Great requesters steal — with credit. If the above research steps didn’t get you the document you’re looking for, you’ll have to file a request — but hopefully now you have a better sense of what documents exist and you can write a much more targeted request based on what you’ve learned.

Review documents an agency has previously released, trying to look through the agency’s eyes. Do they file a certain kind of incident report after an accident? You can ask for all of those forms filed with the agency within certain dates you’re interested in. Or, if you’re looking at a broader story, think about what documents would be related to documents you’ve already come across. For example, maybe all those accident forms are then entered into a spreadsheet. It’s worth asking the agency for copies of any databases or spreadsheets that log or summarize those accident reports, in this example.

Anytime you can use the form names or language an agency refers to for a given document it will make it easier for them to search for what you’re requesting.

Finally, go through records-based stories of yesterday. Issues that were big problems 10 or 20 years ago are often big problems today, so it’s always a good idea to occasionally request updated versions of the documents that drove those stories. If you found something interesting on MuckRock, you can log in and ‘clone’ a request with just one click. If your request was inspired by prior work, make sure to cite it.

  • Knowing is half the battle. The more specific and detailed you can be in describing the record you want, the harder it is for the agency claim that it does not exist or they can’t find it. Avoid asking for “any and all,” and provide any clues you can so the agency can search internally for it. Did the mayor mention a study at a press conference? Was there a citation in a footnote somewhere? Include that detail in your request. Also, study up on your state’s laws — you’ll be better prepared to haggle over exemptions. We have guides to each states’ records laws, as does the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.
  • Share the FOIA love! Public records can seem like a lonely fight — until you find the amazing community of transparency lovers out there. Check in on the #FOIA hashtag, Instagram your most absurd redactions, post winning requests, and stop by MuckRock’s friendly FOIA Slack.

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