New FOIA tip sheet can help you get the government information you need

About Barbara Mantel

Barbara Mantel (@BJMantel), an independent journalist, is AHCJ’s freelance community correspondent. Her work has appeared in CQ Researcher, Rural Health Quarterly, Undark, Healthline, NBCNews.com and NPR, among others. She helps members find the resources they need to succeed as freelancers and welcomes your suggestions.

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Several freelancer members of AHCJ have asked for a tip sheet about making Freedom of Information Act/open records requests to federal, state and local government agencies. I have filed only a few such requests in my journalism career, so I reached out to an expert, subject librarian Katy Boss at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Boss regularly helps journalism students file FOIA (federal government) and FOIL (state and local government) requests in New York (often referred to as Sunshine Law or open records requests in other states) and has written a clear and helpful guide. AHCJ has reprinted a lightly edited version as a tip sheet. At the bottom, I included links to the FOIA webpages of federal agencies of particular interest to health care journalists and links to two websites that provide open records information for every state.

“I love to file FOIA requests,” Boss said. Many journalists may not feel the same way, but Boss said not to be intimidated by the process and recommends that journalists who have never written one file a few “for fun” to get some practice.

“Once you get the hang of it, it is super easy,” she said. However, as most journalists with experience filing FOIAs know, it can take months to get a response, though state and local requests often take less time.

In her guide, Boss recommends several websites that can help journalists find the correct government agency to query and provide templates for the basic language of a request. For example, FOIA Machine helps journalists draft the request letter and send it.

Other websites, such as DocumentCloud, gather the results of journalists’ FOIAs so others can see if the information they are seeking has already been obtained. For journalists new to the process, Boss recommends browsing through DocumentCloud. Journalists “not only upload the documents they received, but they’ll also upload the communication between themselves and the FOIA officer,” Boss said. “I think that is endlessly useful.”

The most difficult and important part of crafting a FOIA is figuring out precisely what to ask for so the request isn’t denied on a technicality, Boss said. Before making a request, journalists should find out the types of records the agency keeps, how long it keeps those records and what the records are called, she said.

“Sometimes the agencies will put their records retention schedules online, or they will have some sort of documentation file about the kinds of different records they keep,” Boss said. “But if they are really petty, they might make you submit a FOIA for their records schedule.”

Don’t hesitate to call the agency’s FOIA officer or custodian of records for help, she said. However, as a recent scan of several government agency websites showed, many FOIA officers are working remotely because of the pandemic and may not be reachable by phone.

A big issue for many journalists who finally receive the information they have requested is making sense of it all. It can come in formats that are difficult to understand, or the terminology may be “inside baseball,” she said. This is especially true if a journalist has received a raw data set. Boss recommends reaching out to expert sources and asking them to review the documents or data sets with you.

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