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.