Sunshine Week

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. Read more

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 1.12.59 PM

Sunshine Week in 5 cartoons

Sunshine Week kicked off Monday, and so far we’ve seen a lot of resources for reporters, some horror stories and pieces about why it matters. Editorial cartoonists are also showing what’s at stake. Via email and phone, I asked four of them about their work and their own experiences with open records.

Ann Telnaes, The Washington Post:


“The idea came from a Pew Research Center piece about one of their surveys which questioned Americans about how they now view government surveillance programs. One point that caught my eye was that 61% of Americans who were aware of the programs are now less confident that they serve the public interest after watching the developments in news stories about government monitoring programs.”

Nathaniel Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 3.17.52 PM

“I feel very strongly about holding the government to account, so it was an easy choice to draw about Sunshine Week, as I have in the past. Read more


5 open records horror stories from The Associated Press

The Associated Press

In advance of Sunshine Week, The Associated Press compiled a state-by-state open-records update that includes several transparency nightmares, including a Florida sheriff’s office that wanted $399,000 to search for agency emails containing gay slurs and a state Department of Motor Vehicles that demanded $19,950 for a specialized public records search.

Here are five cases that stand out:

California: The state DMV asked for nearly $20,000 to fulfill an open-records request from The Associated Press seeking to determine “whether poor people had their driver’s licenses suspended at a disproportionate rate.”

The justification for the pricetag? The DMV claimed the request would require 120 hours of special programming at $135 per hour:

The AP sought a meeting with the DMV’s public information and technology staff, but the agency never responded.

Read more

As Sunshine Week dawns, journalists, advocates, call for transparency

Sunshine Week, an annual initiative promoting government transparency, starts Sunday. To mark the occasion, several journalists and media organizations have taken public stands in favor of better open records laws and more transparent government.

Gary Pruitt, CEO of The Associated Press
Pruitt released a statement Friday that condemned the government’s lackadaisical responses to The AP’s Freedom of Information Act requests, citing its recent lawsuit against Hillary Clinton.

Despite head-pounding frustrations in using them, the Freedom of Information Act and state open records laws are powerful reporting tools. But it’s important to remember that they don’t exist just for journalists. They are there for everyone.

Massachusetts newspapers
The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, the The Patriot Ledger and Gatehouse Media papers in Massachusetts have all agreed to publish coordinated editorials in condemnation of a recent ruling by Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin that allowed Boston police to withhold the names of police officers who were driving drunk, said Ellen Clegg, interim editorial page editor at The Boston Globe. Read more

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 5.59.31 AM

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


As government tightens access, residents can’t find out time for Easter egg hunt

Editor’s Note: March 16 to 22 marks Sunshine Week, the annual effort by media organizations to highlight the vital importance of transparency and openness in a robust democracy. The following is an editorial from Angela Greiling Keane, 2013 National Press Club president, and David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

When the Valley Journals of Riverton, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, wanted to know the time of the town’s 2012 Easter egg hunt, they couldn’t find out. The city barred the parks official from speaking to reporters without permission, and nothing, not even the Second Coming, would pry that information loose.

What Valley Journals Managing Editor Linda Petersen experienced is unfortunately all too common – and becoming more so – in Utah, Washington, D.C., and other government shops across the country. 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.

Read more
1 Comment

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. Read more


Ohio governor quickly reverses ban on cameras, audio recorders at budget briefing

Dayton Daily News
Gov. John Kasich‘s spokeswoman said earlier today that journalists could bring only pens, notepads and tape recorders to the budget briefing; the audio couldn’t be used for anything but checking accuracy, she said. The edict was reversed after news organizations protested. Read more


Plain Dealer documents how slow Cleveland City Hall is to respond to records requests

Cleveland Plain Dealer
On Feb. 2, the paper asked City Hall for records that track public-records requests. It’s still trying to get all the information. “In Cleveland, obtaining records in what should be a routine process can instead be a frustrating and cumbersome experience,” writes Rachel Dissell. Read more