June 14, 2016

Does your newsroom have a public records strategy? Do you track how many Freedom of Information requests reporters make? Who do your reporters turn to for help if they are struggling to get records?

Answers to these questions likely vary by newsroom, but I recently got a chance to find out how BuzzFeed’s news staff is working to improve the public records process by creating what it calls a “FOIA-friendly newsroom.”

In a nod to the site’s well-known listicle style, here are seven things journalists can learn from BuzzFeed’s public records strategy:

  • Spread seeds and wait patiently

    BuzzFeed has a full-time news staff of about 200 people. The staff typically files three to five public records requests a day to federal and state agencies, and the site’s data investigations team files requests for databases about every three days.

    Chris McDaniel, BuzzFeed’s death penalty reporter, calls it spreading seeds and being patient. He currently has 60 requests pending and keeps track of them in a spreadsheet.

    “I made a (records request) template for every state,” he said. “My thinking is, you’re writing a records request. You want to present yourself as if you know what you’re doing.”

    McDaniel says he has sometimes waited a year or more to get records. Other requests don’t take as long, so he works on those stories in the meantime. He has learned what states are the best to work with — Nebraska — and the worst — Oklahoma, especially the governor’s office, which “is really bad at responding to requests,” he said.

  • Understand people’s motivations

    While McDaniel and other reporters try to wait patiently for records, they also know when to turn up the pressure if an agency is stalling. McDaniel says it’s a matter of understanding people’s motivations and what will make them respond to your request faster.

    Some agencies are worried about being sued. Others are worried about public perception.

    “We’ll threaten to publish something that says, there’s something they won’t turn over,” McDaniel said. “That gets PR people more responsive.”

  • Let the lawyer play ‘bad cop’

    If BuzzFeed reporters are having trouble getting records, they can turn to Nabiha Syed, the company’s assistant general counsel. She often handles the tough public records cases, including negotiations and appeals when requests are denied.

    “Lawyers should be the bad cop, and you should be good cop,” she said. Syed writes “very formal” appeals letters to agencies and often includes case law to back up her arguments, a tactic that she says has been successful.

    “It’s pretty fun for me to work on things that end up being the backbone of a story,” she said. “To see the stories that have won awards, many had public records at their heart.”

    Reporters who don’t have a lawyer like Syed to help with public records requests can contact journalism organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has a legal hotline, or local open-government groups.

  • Request records using a ‘one-two punch’

    When reporters make public records requests, Syed advises them to use the “one-two punch” approach. First, send a formal request by email so there is a paper trail.

    Then, pick up the phone and “be a human being.”

    “Put yourself in the shoes of the person who’s gotten your request. Do a little homework beforehand,” Syed said. “(Say), ‘I’m around if you want to talk about the request and narrowing it.’ These are real people processing these things.”

    Syed also asks reporters to send copies of their records requests to an internal BuzzFeed email account so she can keep track of what’s going on and get a feel for the temperament of the conversation in case legal help is needed.

    Syed says she has found that some agencies are easier to work with than others. The New York Police Department, for example, “continues to take the cake” for being the least responsive. She says they are known to cite public records exemptions that only apply to federal agencies.

    “I’ve sued NYPD in the past. It doesn’t matter. They won’t respond, won’t return phone calls. You can’t email. Everything must be hard letter,” Syed said. “They live in a different era and act like they can do whatever they want. It’s really frustrating.”

    The Navy, however, is “remarkably wonderful at responding,” she said. “Also, they always call you ma’am.”

  • Share what you know

    BuzzFeed has an internal “sunshine” listserv that allows reporters to ask each other questions and get advice about public records.

    Syed says she often learns new things from the listserv and uses it to track trends in public records requests on the federal and state level. She has also seen the listserv help BuzzFeed reporters who aren’t as experienced in freedom of information laws.

    “FOIA can be kind of terrifying. It’s not the most efficient of modes of information gathering,” she said.

  • Track your success

    BuzzFeed has been tracking its successes over the past year and says it has managed to get more than 71,000 pages of documents (and five databases) in response to appealed Freedom of Information Act requests. The site has negotiated public records from 62 different agencies in 22 different states.

  • Try to improve the public records process for everyone

    BuzzFeed hosted a FOIA hackathon at their New York City office in April to find better ways to work with government agencies. Participants used data from MuckRock — a public records website — to do some of the following projects:

    • Several participants analyzed agencies for their responsiveness and found which are the slowest to respond (the FBI, NSA, CIA and NYPD).
    • Others visualized data from FOIA.gov to show the cost and volume of Federal FOIA requests.
    • Others examined how concentrated requests are to single requesters, finding that 38 percent of federal requests are filed by the top 100 requesters.

    How does your newsroom handle public records requests? I’d love to hear about the interesting or innovative things you are doing. Contact me on Twitter @RecordsGeek.

Correction: A previous version of this story, using information from BuzzFeed, misstated the number of pages obtained in response to appealed Freedom of Information Act requests and the number of states those documents were obtained from. We apologize for the error.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at WRAL.com in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is passionate about public records. She previously worked as an education reporter…
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