FOIA

What’s your weirdest FOIA experience?

This 2007 photo shows documents from a Freedom of Information Law request to the Finger Lakes village of Penn Yan, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli)

This 2007 photo shows documents from a Freedom of Information Law request to the Finger Lakes village of Penn Yan, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli)

For the end of Sunshine Week, I emailed a handful of reporters and asked them a few questions about their experiences with Freedom of Information requests. Most remembered the first request they made, most had one or two really odd experiences, including basically having a baby sitter assigned to watch while looking through records, and they all had great advice on getting the information they ask for.

Melissa Segura with BuzzFeed News remembered her first FOIA request pretty clearly and how nervous she felt at the time.

“I was an intern at the sports department at The New Mexican in Santa Fe and I needed information about coaching salaries for the public high school teams,” she wrote. Segura didn’t remember the exact request, but she did remember “obsessively checking the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act and citing its specific language about a million more times than I needed to and then laboring over the wording of the letter so that I didn’t leave any loopholes. The act of crafting the FOIA made me feel like a real reporter.”

Here are the weirdest FOIA experiences some journalists have had so far, as well as their smart advice. Want to share your own? Email me or tweet to me and I’ll include it here.

What has been your worst/craziest/weirdest FOI request outcome or experience?

Lisa Song, InsideClimate News: “My weirdest experience happened a few months ago, when I went to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s office in Austin to look through some documents about chemical exposures and public health. I spent about 3 days in the reading room, and a TCEQ paralegal sat next to me the entire time, often reading over my shoulder, to make sure I didn’t copy any of the records or take them out of the room, which would have required paying a $3,400 fee.”

Alexandra Zayas, Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Florida: “My worst experience: getting quoted more than $10,000 for copies of paper records that could have been given to me electronically by the state Department of Health. But the department insisted they were not public as part of that larger database. My best experience: easily getting free or cheap copies of unexpected records, like audio cassette tapes of legislative hearings from the early 1980s and CD recordings of workers compensation hearings.”

Tyler Dukes, WRAL, Raleigh, North Carolina: “Not weird, per se, but definitely a case that made me chuckle. I mostly send requests to various agencies in North Carolina, so it’s not common for me to send a formal ‘FOIA’ request to federally associated organizations. It really makes you adjust your internal sense of how long you have to wait for records on the national level. In 2013, I had a request pending with the U.S. Agency for International Development for nearly a year – and it was just fairly routine records on grant proposals and awards. About halfway through the process, I got a nice note from the records agent handling my case that it was being transferred to another USAID worker. The request had been pending so long that my original FOIA officer literally retired.”

Nancy Amons, WSMV, Nashville, Tennessee: “Weirdest – DOT bridge inspection records were not open in Tennessee, but across the state line, they were open in Kentucky. We did a story about how you could drive a few miles across the line and get records you couldn’t see in Tennessee. The difference was in how each state interpreted the law.”

Melissa Segura, BuzzFeed News: “I’m happy to report that my FOIA experiences have been marked almost exclusively by monotony, bureaucracy and tedium–you know, like they’re set up to be.”

What’s your best tip for actually getting the information you’re requesting?

Dukes: “Dogged – but obnoxiously polite – persistence. Some agencies see long wait times as a strategy for avoiding requests altogether, and there’s often no real cost to dragging the process out as long as possible. I want them to know that the price of delay involves dealing with my phone calls, voicemails, emails, text messages and office visits asking for updates on at least a weekly basis, if not more often. I’ve found if you don’t quit, they generally take you more seriously.”

Song: “If you’re asking for data, put as many technical terms as you can into the request. It always helps to be precise, and it might also ensure your request ends up in the hands of someone on the technical staff who understands the records.”

Amons: “Be nice. Call first. Make sure your request is not overly broad. Tell the people where to find the information, if you know. It will make their search for the documents faster. Be nice. If they say no, send them the law because they may not know it. If they say no, ask them what exception they are citing. If they say no, ask them their name and their bosses name. Be polite, even if you are being firm. No one wants to help a jerk.”

Zayas: “Know exactly what to ask for and be able to speak the lingo. Many agencies are required to keep record retention schedules, which serve laundry lists for every kind of record an agency keeps, the format in which it’s kept and how long an agency will hold onto it.”

Segura: “This might seem obvious but it’s worth repeating: Be nice. As the daughter of a former public records custodian, I’m cognizant that there’s actually a person on the other end of that request. Yes, the public is absolutely entitled to information. Yes, the rules and responses can seem arcane and arbitrary. But rarely–if ever–have I found that being a jerk helps produce paperwork. There’s a huge difference between being diligent, persistent, and even relentless in your FOIA (qualities that many requests require) but those characteristics shouldn’t be confused with belligerence, arrogance or plain meanness. I’ve worked across from BuzzFeed News reporter Kendall Taggert and I’ve never seen a reporter who is so skillful at getting FOIAs fulfilled. Her trick? Being personable and persistent. It’s magic.” Read more

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AP considering legal action over Clinton emails

The Associated Press | The New York Times

The Associated Press is considering legal action against the State Department “for failing to turn over some emails covering Clinton’s tenure,” Jack Gillum and Ted Bridis wrote for The Associated Press Wednesday.

The threat comes amid allegations that Clinton used a private email account linked to a server in her New York home to duck public records requests from news organizations including Gawker and The AP.

The private email account and associated personal server would have given Clinton additional legal latitude if she was asked to turn over her correspondence, according to The AP:

Operating her own server would have afforded Clinton additional legal opportunities to block government or private subpoenas in criminal, administrative or civil cases because her lawyers could object in court before being forced to turn over any emails.

The news cooperative has been waiting more than one year to receive the emails, which were requested under the Freedom of Information Act, according to The AP. The State Department “never suggested” it didn’t possess Clinton’s email in response to an open-record request from the news cooperative. Read more

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Jack White disses student newspaper over open records request

White. (AP)

White. (AP)

The Oklahoma Daily

Thanks to controversy surrounding a student newspaper’s open records request, the public now knows that Jack White is currently on a “no banana” tour, that he prefers his guacamole “chunky” and that he doesn’t think much of journalism degrees.

Those details were revealed after the University of Oklahoma’s OU Daily got curious about White’s sold-out performance at the university’s McCasland Field House. Staffers wanted to see how much the University was paying White to perform (upwards of $80,000, it turns out), so they filed an open records request for the contract.

The paper received the document and published it on its website. Among the most interesting tidbits:

  • White isn’t into bananas right now: “We don’t want to see bananas anywhere in the building.”
  • The band is really specific about their guac demands. White and company require “fresh home-made guacamole,” and even provide a recipe.
  • After the show, White wants “a New York strip steak, cooked medium, with steamed vegetables on the side and no sauce.”

At the concert a few days after the contract was published, White went on a “mini-rant” against the student newspaper, according to an attendee, telling concert-goers to steer clear “of journalism and law degrees.”

White also had “a raunchy suggestion” for The Daily, according to a review of the concert from The Oklahoman.

The Daily responded to White after the concert, defending the paper’s right to public information about university spending:

Journalism must hold public figures accountable. By our university paying White and his band $80,000 to play on campus, he is a public figure. Also, the university officials who booked White were public officials tasked with managing money, some of which comes from students’ fees. We reported the costs so students could see how their money was being spent, who was spending and on whom it was spent.

As for harm, no harm was done to White unless you count his ego. But it’s important to understand that we didn’t publish that information to embarrass White. We published the information because students need to know how their money is being spent — even if it’s being spent on homemade guacamole and aged salami with a sharp knife.

The controversy caused by the article has prompted entertainment companies to blackball the university as a concert venue.

The Daily’s review of the concert, meanwhile, was generally complimentary.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that The Oklahoma Daily obtained details surrounding Jack White’s upcoming appearance through a Freedom of Information Act request. In fact, staffers gained access to the contract through the Oklahoma Open Records Act. Read more

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Buy the journalist in your life a drone. Or a selfie stick

Good morning. Thanks for hanging in there with me this week. We’re taking a newsletter break for the holidays but will return on Monday, Jan. 5, brimming with news and probably an extra five pounds from all that day drinking. In the meantime, Poynter has a lot of great stories lined up for your holiday reading pleasure. For now, here are 10 media stories.

  1. What to buy your journalist friends, because they’re probably not getting a bonus this year

    How about an "Is it plagiarism?" pillow? Or a cassette recorder for when digital devices fail us? (Poynter) | A bandolier for your iPhone? A picture-taking aerial robot that's not really a drone? (Mashable) | Buzz Bissinger's Gucci schwag? (New York) | Grammar dessert plates? A Superman lunchbox? (AJR) | A studded USB necklace? (TechCrunch)

  2. Now Cuba needs to take care of its journalists

    Cuba is 10 countries away from the bottom of Reporters Without Borders' 2014 Press Freedom Index, and on Thursday, RWB called for the release of jailed Cuban journalists and bloggers. (Reporters Without Borders) | RELATED: Raju Narisetti has an idea. "Create a Journalist Rescue Fund." (NiemanLab)

  3. Will 2015 be the year we all start making podcasts again?

    Looks like yes. Serial was a smashing success, but it broke out of the podcast bubble for some specific reasons. (Mashable) | There's also a reason the Mail Chimp ad worked so well. (AdAge) | "More important, the economics of podcasting have begun to make sense." (CJR) | Stop being frustrated by the things you still don't know. "This is how investigative journalism works." (Slate)

  4. At Vice, writers make way less than pretty much everyone

    Gawker's Hamilton Nolan got some numbers on what Vice employees are making, so if you were considering switching to business development, consider this a sign. There's a $35,000 difference. (Gawker) | RELATED IF YOU STILL WANT TO BE A JOURNALIST: Tips for applying for journalism jobs. (martinbelam.com)

  5. Nice work, ladies

    Bustle, a startup aimed at women, is attracting some big money and readers -- now up to 20 million monthly. (Business Insider) | TheSkimm is also killing it. (The New York Times) | Sadly, The Washington Post's She the People blog will not survive the year. (All Digitocracy)

  6. Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab has some FOIA tips for you

    Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, a Mexican journalist who shared a Pulitzer with The New York Times' David Barstow in 2013, has eight tips on getting information regardless of what country you're in. (IJNet)

  7. Take this list of questions that tell you something at the end to see if you're too wordy, but first glide your eyes across this from The Guardian

    "When you start calling carrots 'popular orange vegetables', something has gone badly wrong. Bring on the subeditors!" (The Guardian) | It's a sprout, not “nubby little cabbages." But that is cute. (The Guardian) | Now take this quiz and see if you're too wordy. (The Guardian)

  8. We have 12 days left to reflect on 2014

    The Washington Post has the 15 worst Internet hoaxes of the year. "6. Justin Bieber did not save a Russian man from a bear." (The Washington Post) | Slate has an amazing interactive about the things that made us ragey in 2014. (Slate)

  9. Front page of the day

    The Sydney Morning Herald, with a tribute at Martin Place.

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Ohio legislature rushes to shield lethal-drug info from public records law

The Columbus Dispatch | RCFP

The Ohio General Assembly is moving quickly to pass a bill that would “shield the identity of manufacturers and sellers of drugs used in lethal injection, as well as physicians and members of the execution team who participate in the process,” Alan Johnson reports for The Columbus Dispatch.

Several other states have secrecy statutes regarding the source of lethal injection drugs, Michael Rooney reported this spring for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The laws sprang up after the European Union banned the export of drugs that could be used in capital punishment. States have had to turn to “compounding pharmacies” to get drugs, Rooney writes, and fear that “death penalty opponents might pressure those pharmacies to stop producing and supplying the drugs used for execution.”

Prisoners, too, have requested information on the drugs to be used on them. Ohio took 26 minutes to execute Dennis McGuire in January. Ohio used midazolam and hydromorphone to kill McGuire, and “plans to use the same two drugs, but in higher dosages, in the next execution,” Johnson reported in August.

The Ohio Newspaper Association opposes the bill, Dispatch Editor Benjamin J. Marrison reports in a commentary. “Are you OK with this type of secrecy?” he writes. Read more

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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

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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: abeaujon@poynter.org. Read more

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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.

10 MEDIA STORIES

  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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rosenthal-v-small

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.

Rosenthal

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

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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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