Public records: Dig deep (but curb your expectations)


Lexi Churchill of ProPublica (at the podium) and Sandhya Kambhampati of the Los Angeles Times (to the right) talking to attendees during the FOIA panel at Health Journalism 2022. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Gilyard)

Rhode Island freelance writer Philip Eil, a veteran of an extended public records battle, has some stark advice for any journalist determined to wrestle important documents from the government: “Expect nothing, and expect it to take forever.”

That sounds discouraging. But, as Eil told colleagues on Thursday, April 29 at Health Journalism 2022 during the “Making FOIA work for you: How to get the public records you want” panel, low expectations serve two purposes. They help you avoid becoming emotionally involved. And they make your hard-won victories even sweeter.

Eil should know: His very first bid for public records turned into a fight that went all the way to a federal appeals court as he sought the documents he needed to report on the notorious “pill mill” physician whose opioid prescriptions ravaged an Ohio town. “I was unwilling,” he said, “to take no for an answer.”

Eil’s fellow panelists offered their own tips about mastering the art of public-record requests: Know the law (and cite it!), don’t always rely on email, look for alternative ways to get elusive information, and reach out for legal reinforcements when needed.

Adam Marshall, a senior staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, advised journalists to not only understand public records law but to remind government agencies of it in your public record requests. “There’s actually empirical research that shows that if you state a statutory provision, you will actually get a better response from the government,” he said.

Marshall’s organization offers several helpful resources about public records: There’s a FOIA Wiki about the federal Freedom of Information Act;, a site that helps journalists create and manage FOIA requests; and the Open Government Guide, which has details on open records and open meeting laws in each state and Washington D.C. That last resource includes details on accessing everything from autopsy reports and 911 tapes to birth certificates and gun permits.

Sandhya Kambhampati, a data and graphics reporter at the Los Angeles Times, recommended that journalists use an old-fashioned tool: the telephone. “Don’t just email people. You’d be surprised how many times I just call our records officer and ask for a record, and I can get them,” she said.

It helps, she said, to keep the public record’s own interests in mind by focusing on ways to make their job easier. For example, ask how you can more precisely define the records you’re looking for: “How can I make this easy for you?”

Lexi Churchill, a research reporter with ProPublica, urged colleagues to be open to alternative ways to get information. When ProPublica dug into carbon monoxide deaths in Texas during the extraordinary freeze in February 2021, it asked for audio of 911 calls. “The audio can be really enlightening and very frightening,” she said, but “it was going to them forever to get.”

To speed things up, ProPublica asked for records that are essentially transcripts of the 911 calls. “This gave us a sense about which specific cases we wanted to look at,” she said.

ProPublica also discovered that it could request information about back-and-forth transmissions during emergency responses. That helped the reporters in delving into a botched response to family members who couldn’t open a door to an emergency crew because they were unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Churchill also said ProPublica was able to tap into county-by-county indexes that provide basic information about deaths months before the details are officially finalized. And state syndromic surveillance data allowed reporters to track how many people were coming to emergency rooms with carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms.

The whole public records request process can be overwhelming. But Eil, the Rhode Island reporter, said you don’t need to go it alone. He was able to enlist the ACLU; other organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists may be able to help.

And brace yourself.  You might be in it for the long haul.

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Randy Dotinga