FOIA Tips

FOIA Zoom Information Session, May 20, 2022
National Press Club Journalism Institute | National Press Club
FOIA Ombudsman Kirsten Mitchell

Tips:

  1. Use a spreadsheet to track requests.
  2. Attempt to establish relationship with FOIA POI – public liaison officer. Don’t personalize issues and problems. You’re both doing your jobs.
  3. Do basic research, investigation, interviews before FOIA requests. You will have more accurate information to research and request, eliminate other things.
  4. Look at agency’s FOIA logs and find out what has been requested that could be similar, has been released, what request was for, requesting document. Can all be helpful.
  5. Federal agencies are required to note on the document where redacted, what exemption redacted under. There are nine exemptions and reason must be given on the document. Important for understanding for understanding why, and if you can appeal or get around the exemption.
  6. Understand the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 and as applicable, state it in your request. Often agencies, police, etc. will get around some requests if you don’t specifically note it to let them know you know about it.
  7. Look for FOIA requests that are similar to your needs, very important.
  8. You do not have to accept whatever format of documents they want to send you, so request format you want. Be careful as to your computer programs because some files will be useless for you if PC or Mac. Know what you can open and request in that format. Contact files in .eml are useless to Mac. Request in PDF, xml or other formats as you can use.
  9. In FOIA requests, specifically request ie, all external newsletters etc. be omitted to eliminate junk that you will be charged per page. Specify as much as possible what you want.
  10. If the same document is requested by 3 or more people and issued, the federal agency must place in their online FOIA reading room or library.
  11. Be sure to include request for fee waiver (costs normally apply to page count for some, all costs on others) and on what basis for consideration. When you get the costs and it is too much, ask how to reduce the costs.
  12. If freelance reporter or journalist, state that in the document and provide examples of work, or provide letter from editor etc. of pending article or publication. Emphasize that the request is not for commercial purposes.
  13. If an agency provides services, inspections, licenses, etc. they are required to have a document. See if you can obtain information without a FOIA. Sometimes you can access public information without FOIA. Otherwise submit FOIA.
  14. There are 120 federal departments/agencies with FOIA offices, then some private agencies below those.
  15. Consider presence of an agency in your community, and if information available from there, for there, that could have application to what you need. Could also be local inspections etc. by a state or city that could give you some data that would be faster or give info you wouldn’t get from feds.
  16. Balance request between broad and narrow request to help everyone.
  17. Narrow request by time, subject matter, names, scope.
  18. Ask for time expectation to expect documents. Federal agencies required to give date of completion. Track this on your spreadsheet and check on status.
  19. Consider alternative agencies and departments on all levels of government for similar information. Example, one reporter couldn’t get phone numbers for a contact, so went down to the county/city department for pet licenses and obtained it from there. Think creatively.
  20. Talk with others with related interests to coordinate the work, share tips and costs.
  21. Ask POI how to cut costs on request or streamline to get what you want. Less work for both.
  22. Ask what docs are already available on same request or similar information. At least that can be a starting point and quicker start.
  23. Don’t fish for information, that wastes everyone’s time and is more costly in research costs.
  24. Don’t rely on just FOIA – research and think out of the box.
  25. Always appeal denials or exemptions. It requires a fresh look by agency at what has been requested.

Consider for more information:
Muckrock.com
Https://www.csosa.gov/foia-exemptions/
Https://www.nfoic.org
Foia.gov
Each agency’s FOIA office
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press – Home
Open Government Guide for Journalists – Reporters Committee
National Press Club Journalism Institute | National Press Club

LT

Researcher-writer