Articles about "FOIA"

Ferguson gouges journalists on public records requests

Associated Press

The city of Ferguson, Missouri, demands high fees to retrieve documents in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting last month. “Organizations like the website Buzzfeed were told they’d have to pay unspecified thousands of dollars for emails and memos about Ferguson’s traffic-citation policies and changes to local elections,” Jack Gillum reports. “The Washington Post said Ferguson wanted no less than $200 for its requests.”

Related: 4 types of FOIAs and how to use them for your reporting | FOIA lessons from Gawker Editor John Cook

Gillum says the city “wanted nearly $2,000 to pay a consulting firm for up to 16 hours of work to retrieve messages on its own email system” when AP “asked for copies of several police officials’ emails and text messages.” Technicians might have to look at tape backups, the consulting firm told Gillum.

FOIA hounds on MuckRock shared some strategies for getting around high fees last year. The NSA hit MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy with high fees for a public records request last year because it decided he wasn’t a legitimate member of the press.

Sometimes pushing back against exorbitant fees works: The Mackinac Center for Public Policy sued the city of Westland, Michigan over high fees last year. Westland later agreed to restructure its fee scale.

AP “asked for a fee waiver because it argued the records would serve the public interest, as the law allows, but that request was denied,” Gillum reports. Read more


Editor fired for Reddit shenanigans, BuzzFeed editors don’t shout

mediawiremorningGood morning. Here are 10 media stories for the day before your long weekend. And from Sam Kirkland, your daily digital stories.

  1. Editor fired for gaming Reddit: Rod “Slasher” Breslau was fired from CBS Interactive’s esports site OnGamers after he was “caught asking other users to post his stories to Reddit with specific headlines,” Patrick Howell O’Neill reports. Reddit has banned OnGamers as a result, resulting in a loss of half its traffic. (The Daily Dot) || Related: How to get your news site banned from Reddit (Poynter)
  2. These media companies drug-test their employees: The Washington Post, The New York Times and McClatchy all want you to fill a cup. (Gawker)
  3. Voice of America journalists don’t want to be mouthpieces: Their union endorsed a change to the organization’s charter that would require VOA to “actively support American policy,” Ron Nixon reports. (NYT)
  4. NYPD’s public records policy gets law wrong: It says it has 10 days to reply. The law says 5. (Capital) || FREEKY FLASHBAKK: NYPD stops giving journalists crime reports at precincts (Poynter)
  5. USPS cuts could affect weekly newspapers: National Newspaper Association President Robert M. Williams Jr. wrote Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to protest USPS’ plan to close 82 mail-processing plants. “NNA firmly believes that mail service to rural and small-town America is critical to local economies. We will not stand by quietly when it is put at risk.” (The Rural Blog)
  6. Murdoch money flows to Clintons: “Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox/News Corp has given more than $3 million to Bill and Hillary Clinton over the past 22 years.” (Politico)
  7. The New York Times has already closed a lot of blogs: It has “ended or merged about half of the 60 or so blogs that it had at the high point two years ago, and there may be about another 10 to go,” Margaret Sullivan writes. But “nothing is on the chopping block at this moment.” (NYT) || The Times prizes collaboration, and good blogs emerge from “from isolation and lonely enterprise,” the blogger Erik Wemple writes. (The Washington Post)
  8. BuzzFeed editors don’t shout: “It’s such an old-fashioned idea the idea that a newspaper editor has to be someone who marches up and down shouting,” BuzzFeed UK Editor Luke Lewis tells William Turvill. “I think that model has not got much longer left for this world.” He also says the publication has a culture “of experimentation,” “which means saying yes to pretty much every idea.” (PressGazette) || “The BuzzFeed formula — not just personalizing pop trivia, but treating it as an inexorable element of our emotional makeup — feels like the natural outcome of several decades of plug-in room deodorizers and Toyotathons and hamburger-slinging clowns.” (NYT)
  9. Layoffs: The Wall Street Journal has laid off 20-40 people (NYT) || 22 people lost their jobs Wednesday when the Star Media Group announced it was closing The Grid, a Toronto magazine. (Toronto Star) || “Well, we gave it our best shot.” (@TheGridTO)
  10. Job stuff, edited by Ben Mullin: Jonathan Hart, a founder of the Online News Association, has left his job as general counsel there to become the chief legal officer and general counsel for NPR. (ONA) His spot will be filled by Michael Kovaka. (Jim Brady) Shelley Acoca, who had been an editor of Fox News Magazine, will become the East Coast lifestyles and entertainment editor for the Associated Press. (AP)

Correction: This post originally misspelled Shelley Acoca’s first name.

Suggestions? Criticisms? Would like me to send you this roundup each morning? Please email me: Read more


Morning media roundup: Anonymous sources, FOIA ‘terrorism,’ Chelsea Clinton’s salary

Twice in the last two weeks, New York Times reporters got burned by anonymous sources, Jack Shafer writes. The Times and The Washington Post “tend to rely more heavily on” anonymous sources “than other print outlets” — “In the past four days, the Post cited unnamed sources in at least 18 pieces and the Times did the same in 17 stories ranging from the Iraq civil war to a smartphone app that predicts what a user will type next.”

• “I have nothing against anonymous sources who help guide reporters toward the verifiable — I just draw the line at routinely printing what they say,” Shafer writes.


  1. Jason Leopold was a sloppy journalist who realized that FOIA scoops meant “no one sharing it had to worry about whether they could trust the person who had unearthed the documents; they only had to trust the documents themselves.” Jason Fagone writes a fascinating profile of a self-described “FOIA terrorist.” (Matter)
  2. Former employees at the Salt Lake Tribune have filed suit to suspend changes to the newspaper’s joint operating agreement with the Deseret News. “The group argues the agreement gives the Tribune too little revenue to publish its print edition long-term and also jeopardizes its website, which relies on print revenues,” Michelle L. Price reports. (Associated Press)
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King County pays Seattle Times more than $40,000 for public records violations

More than 1,900 pages of e-mails and documents help tell a story about what’s happened to people with mental health issues in King County in Washington, and what the county’s doing about it — not bad for a collection of documents the county couldn’t seem to find.


Reporter Brian M. Rosenthal first requested those emails last fall after he wrote a Seattle Times series about psychiatric “boarding”, which left people who were involuntarily committed and in need of psychiatric treatment in the emergency room for hours or even days. Many readers wrote him emails about the story afterward.

One “was from a staff person at a hospital that said, nice story, here’s something else you ought to be looking into,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview with Poynter.

The tip was about an obscure state law that meant people who needed treatment were let go if caseworkers didn’t get to them before a time limit. Here’s how the Times explains the law in a sidebar accompanying Rosenthal’s May 10 piece: “When police bring someone to a hospital for psychiatric assessment and possible commitment, a county evaluator must decide within 12 hours whether commitment is necessary. It’s six hours if the person is brought in by a family member.”

So Rosenthal did a little reporting 101, he said, and called the relevant government agencies and asked how often evaluators missed their deadlines. He called sources at both the King County Department of Community and Human Services and the prosecuting attorney’s office who handled the cases. But both said that no one had ever counted.

“Furthermore, they said, this is really not a big issue for us.” Read more


Kent State journalism faculty ‘embarrassed’ by university’s secretive presidential search

Akron Beacon Journal | The Daily Kent Stater | When Journalism Fails

Faculty members from Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication took out an ad in student paper The Daily Kent Stater Tuesday to protest the university’s search for a new president. Officials destroyed documentation of the search, saying it had “turned over all records that are relevant,” Carol Biliczky reported in the Akron Beacon Journal earlier this month.

“We’re embarrassed by our administration’s refusal to disclose public records related to the recent presidential search,” the ad reads. “And we’re troubled over credible news reports that some of these records may have been shredded to avoid public inspection.” Read more

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Public Records Geek will engage in tug-of-war, when necessary

In her first newspaper job with The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Md., Kelly Hinchcliffe got a call that the school district called a news conference.

Why? she asked many times, but no one explained.

So when Hinchcliffe showed up and saw a stack of press releases on the table, she grabbed one and sat down.

A public information officer rushed over and said she couldn’t have the release until after the press conference.

“I said, well, it becomes a public record when it’s created, not when you say you want to hand it to me,” Hinchcliffe told the woman.

A tug-of-war over that press release followed, “and I’m telling her, the public records law says…” Hinchcliffe said in a phone interview with Poynter. Read more


Obama administration denied, censored more FOIA requests in 2013 than it approved

Associated Press | National Security Archive

The Obama Administration cited national security when withholding information from FOIA requests more than 8,000 times in 2013, the Associated Press reports. That’s a “57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times,” Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum write.

The overall number of requests to which the government replied was up 2 percent, but government figures show “the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records,” they write. Sometimes the government told AP it just couldn’t find information:

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, whose top official has testified to Congress repeatedly about NSA surveillance programs disclosed by contractor Edward Snowden, told the AP it couldn’t find any records or emails in its offices asking other federal agencies to be on the lookout for journalists to whom Snowden provided classified materials. British intelligence authorities had detained one reporter’s partner for nine hours at Heathrow airport and questioned him under terrorism laws. DNI James Clapper has at least twice publicly described the reporters as “accomplices” to Snowden, who is charged under the U.S. Espionage Act and faces up to 30 years in prison.

Attorney General Eric Holder “strongly” encouraged federal agencies “to make discretionary disclosures of information.” And yet the U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t updated its FOIA guidelines since 2003, George Washington University’s National Security Archive found in an audit.

The justice department has plenty of company in adopting a “glacial” approach to FOIA regulations: “Nearly half (50 out of 101) of all federal agencies have still not updated their Freedom of Information Act regulations to comply with Congress’s 2007 FOIA amendments, and even more agencies (55 of 101) have FOIA regulations that predate and ignore President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s 2009 guidance for a “presumption of disclosure,” according to the new National Security Archive FOIA Audit released today to mark Sunshine Week,” its most recent report says. Read more

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How to use FOIA laws to find stories, deepen sourcing

To mark Sunshine Week, March 16-22, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explains how journalists can use information access laws to develop stories in the public interest. This post is written by Emily Grannis, the Jack Nelson FOI Legal Fellow at the RCFP.

Freedom of information laws are invaluable resources to reporters covering any beat. The laws provide access to a wide range of government documents, from budgets to emails, and contracts to crime reports.

There are two ways to incorporate freedom of information materials into your reporting: start with the documents or start with the story.

When you start with the documents, think about which government records might be interesting to see or might contain information that will build a story. Then request them.

Starting with the story can push your coverage to new insights. Think about how the documents can beef up your story. Public records are great sources and are always on the record. Having the records when you start interviewing human sources also gives you better ammunition and makes your story stronger overall.

Documents received from FOI requests have led to hundreds of important stories, including revelations that the federal government turned down millions in international aid after Hurricane Katrina; a troubling lack of transparency about Medicare inspections of health care facilities; trends in thefts by TSA agents at airports; and the FBI’s practice of allowing informants to break the law.

As helpful as FOI laws can be in these types of stories, the process of requesting records can also be tedious and frustrating. Denials are common, and often government agencies fail to respond in a timely fashion. When that happens, it is important to follow up with the agency.

When an agency fails to respond at all, first reach out informally to check on the status of your request. Call or email – or do both –to initiate a dialogue with the agency. At this stage, it is also useful to know your state’s law on required response times for FOI requests. States incorporate those rules with varying levels of specificity, but it can be helpful to remind an agency of its statutory obligations.

If the agency continues to be unresponsive or denies your FOI request, the next step is an administrative appeal, if that is available. All federal agencies have administrative appeal procedures but most states do not. If you can appeal to the agency or to your state attorney general, be sure to follow the procedure carefully. It is your best chance at finding a resolution while avoiding court, but it will also position you better for litigation if that becomes necessary.

If your efforts at informal discussions and formal administrative appeals fail, the last recourse is to sue the government for the records – an expensive, time-consuming and by-no-means-guaranteed-successful last resort.

Despite the sometimes difficult process, making FOI requests is still worthwhile. The FOI process can open new lines of communication between agencies and the media, it can be the catalyst for crucial revelations and, ultimately, it can lead to a better-informed public. Records requests can also provide the basis for engaging multimedia packages and graphics to more thoroughly explain issues.

To keep a spotlight on FOI, for better or worse, it is important to include the records requests made for your stories and whether those requests were successful. As the ultimate watchdog of government officials, the public needs to know whether agencies are complying with records requests or whether reform – legislative or elective – is needed, and whether the system is working.

Freedom of information laws are critical resources to journalists and should be used and cited as often as possible in your reporting.

Related training: Freedom of Information Read more


Reporter sues Florida court clerk over FOIA fees

Naples City Desk

Gina Edwards filed suit against Dwight Brock, the clerk of the Circuit Court of Collier County, Fla., because his office attempted to charge her $556 to fill a public records request.

Edwards’ previous requests were filled for $1 per CD containing electronic records. But “Brock imposed a $1 per page fee for the non-court and non-official records on Naples City Desk on Feb. 14, following the news organization’s press coverage critical of Brock’s Office published on Feb. 11,” City Desk’s account of the suit filing says.

In her suit, Edwards says the files she requested are subject to Florida’s public records law and that Brock can charge only the “actual cost of duplication.” The records she sought were electronic.

Edwards launched in 2010 and hosts Naples City Desk there.

Last year the Mackinac Center for Public Policy filed suit against Westland, Mich., claiming its fees were exorbitant. The city later lowered its fee scale. Read more


FOIA lessons from Gawker Editor John Cook

Last January, Ann Coulter expressed her anger about The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal-News’ gun-permit map, which it assembled from public records. “I want them for Manhattan!” Coulter told Sean Hannity. “I want to know how many rich liberals with their bodyguards have gun permits.”

John Cook, then the investigations editor for Gawker, was able to oblige quickly when that news hook fell from the sky. “I’d had those records in a filing cabinet for a year or more,” he said in a phone call. Cook posted a list of names of New York City gun-permit holders he’d received from the New York Police Department in August 2010. The filing didn’t include addresses, though Cook noted those were already online.

So now if you want to see a picture of John Cook’s house, it, too, is online, thanks to an irate blogger. Cook posted the story in the late afternoon of Jan. 8, 2013, and “by the time I got home the voicemail on our phone was already full with people phoning in death threats,” he said. Threats came in to the Gawker office as well. “My wife was pissed off but we were never really concerned,” Cook said of the calls to his house.

Cook, posing with a pretend crack pipe at Gawker’s party for Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle’s Rob Ford book.

“It was tactically stupid for me to do it,” he said of publishing the names — not because of the blowback but because New York’s state government later tightened access to gun-permit holders’ names. “I had never really expected that they would actually kill that law but sure enough they did,” Cook said.

Two days after Cook published the gun-permit list, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton announced he would be Gawker’s new editor.

Lesson 1: Be flexible

Cook has been filing public-records requests since he worked as a reporter for Brill’s Content in 2000 and 2001. (When he covered television for The Chicago Tribune from 2002-2005, he didn’t get to flex those muscles much, just the odd FCC request.) He’s got a folder on his computer with hundreds of open FOIA requests. When filing, he doesn’t use online forms “because Gawker would often get hassled by FOIA officers because they weren’t familiar with us.” He faxes requests from his computer, on Gawker letterhead.

Now that he’s running the New York-based publication, Cook said he tries to “instill that in my people: All you need is the thought, and you fire it off, and you forget about it.” Send off enough requests and eventually “you start getting them back two a week,” he said. “The downside of that is if they try to screw you or they deny it, it’s hard to remember and keep on them.”

“It is very much understood that that is part of my beat,” Gawker reporter J.K. Trotter said in a phone call, talking about records requests. Last summer, the former IvyGate editor sold Gawker a freelance story based on a FOIA request he made to the City University of New York to learn it was paying Gen. David Petraeus $200,000 to teach. Once CUNY, dazed by the bad publicity, announced it would pay Petraeus $1 instead, Cook made Trotter an offer.

Now, Trotter, says, he has about 100 open FOIAs. “I’ve learned a lot of patience,” he said. “Before, when I first started ramping up, it did not make sense to me why these things took so long. But now that I’ve filed a larger variety of requests, it’s much more apparent to me the diligence and pressure and the sort of agility that FOIA officers require to carry out all these weird requests.”

One case in point: A records request he made to Maryland Public Television for “Any and all records and/or correspondence” relating to Lauren Ashburn’s publication Daily Download, because MPT acted as a conduit for the funds Ashburn raised to launch the site. After a lawyer there told him filling the request could cost Gawker $1,000 or more (the site had offered to pay no more than $200), he agreed to pare it down to the correspondence of a dozen employees who were directly involved with the project. A month later he had documents that strongly suggested Howard Kurtz had lied about his compensation from Daily Download.

Lesson 2: Publish everything

When I asked Cook what he thought were the most Gawker-y kind of FOIAs, he said that since the “bones of the site is a New York media blog,” he loved “getting emails between reporters and flacks because you get to see how the sausage is made.”

(Gawker Media Editorial Director Joel Johnson told me in an email he didn’t think the company’s properties do “enough records digging in general, especially in the areas of finance and environmental shenanigans. It’s something on which I plan to turn up the heat.”)

I asked Cook why he thought such stories had the potential to pop online. “People get a kick out of seeing the original material,” he said. Before digital publishing, journalists were a necessary if sometimes arrogant intermediary between readers and public records: “It was all like, I’m allowed to have it because I’m a reporter, and I’m acting as a guardian of that info and determining what’s important for you, the reader, to know about.”

“I love Glenn Greenwald,” Cook continued, “but he’s basically keeping the same secrets the NSA was keeping” instead of “laying it all out there so people could look at it for themselves.”

I asked how Gawker would have handled Edward Snowden’s leaks, had he come to them instead of Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman.

“I would have read through everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t have put it up without reading it, but as quickly as practicable i would have put it all out there, and published every bit of it.”

Cook said the fact that The New York Times held James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s story about the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping for more than a year when “there’s no indication that disclosure would have hurt anybody” is why he “would always err on the side of the data dump.”

Gawker’s release in 2012 of internal auditor files from Bain Capital followed that script: “We don’t pretend to be qualified to decode them in full, which is why we are posting them here for readers to help evaluate,” Cook wrote. The publication launched the package with a few easily digestible stories — e.g., “Mitt Romney Is the National Enquirer’s Banker” — “but at the end of the day the value was just putting it all out there,” Cook said.

Lesson 3: Be patient

Gawker’s legal department assists the site’s reporters when a body denies a records request. Cook also highly recommends the work of the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, which is helping him with a lawsuit over a request for documents that show which files former President Bush and Vice President Cheney have accessed from their presidential libraries (oral arguments are due to begin next month).

But a bigger problem, especially in the news business, is time. Cook tells reporters that requesting public documents “really doesn’t work for an active story.” You’ve got to send a lot of requests and hope that a few come back heavy.

For Cook, moving into a managerial role means he has less time to drive FOIA officers crazy (he is on the FBI’s list of “vexsome filers”). The U.S. Department of State denied Cook’s request for all of Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines’ correspondence with reporters (Reines was not a shrinking violet when it came to the press).

“They gave me a ‘no records,’ which is obviously bullshit,” Cook said. But “the time for the appeal has lapsed because I’m too busy to follow up on that stuff.”

Correction: A photo caption on an earlier version of this story referred to Robyn Doolittle as “Robyn Ford.” Read more