March 18, 2015

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Last year, Poynter’s News University presented the seminar “How to Request Data from Public Agencies: Data Analysis for Journalists” with Phillip Reese, a computer-assisted reporting specialist at The Sacramento Bee and a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting. Since it’s Sunshine Week, here are five tips from his seminar:

1. Get your request to the right person

Your request should go to the custodian of records, Reese said. If you’re not sure who that person is, get it to the public information officer. If there’s no PIO, send your request to the head of the agency that you’re requesting documents from.

“You just want it in front of someone important who’s going to get it to the right person,” Reese said.

2. Keep it simple

There are many templates out there, Reese said, and theories about what kind of requests work best. For him, the simple approach works, “so I ask for everything that I need in the plainest way possible.” His tips: be direct, specific and ask for data in its “native electronic format.” “All I mean by that, and sometimes I say that, is don’t take the spreadsheet or the massive amount of data you have and convert it to a PDF…”

Here’s Reese’s example:

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3. Let the agency know if you can made adjustments with what you’re asking for

With the example he gave, for instance, if the agency says they can’t get “other pay” for a number of reasons, Reese might ask for everything else, he said, and then keep fighting for the rest.

“Often times agencies will try to trip you up or they’ll have genuine concerns that something you asked for is not available to them, so be prepared for that.”

Reese also ends with this note:

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4. Email your requests

When he can, Reese said he emails his public records requests because it gives him a record of the request and he can follow up right away.

“I usually put at the end of my email ‘Please confirm that you got this,’ and if they don’t, I send them another email and if they don’t confirm again, I send them another email.”

If that doesn’t work, Reese said, he’ll print the letter out and send it to them “so there can be no doubt that they have my public records act request.”

That, he said, is rare. Most people respond via email.

5. “Keep fighting”

If you’re requesting a record an agency has never produced before, expect to be denied, Reese said.

“Go into it with that expectation. Be ready to fight. I do not give up easily. They want you to give up easily in many cases. It’s a gambit to deny you at first to see if you’ll go away. If you don’t go away, eventually they may decide that it’s less work to give you the data.”

Poynter’s News University also has a free self-directed course on FOIA basics. The course includes a list of resources. Here are five of them:

National Freedom of Information Coalition: The National Freedom of Information Coalition has a state resource page.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: RCFP has federal and state guides and, which helps reporters file requests and keep track of them.

Society of Professional Journalists: SPJ’s Freedom of Information page offers a step-by-step guide to filing FOIA requests, state resources and a FOIA blog.

Investigative Reporters and Editors: IRE has a FOI resource center which also includes a letter generator.

First Amendment Center: The First Amendment Center has a Freedom of Information overview, tips on how to file FOI requests and information on open meetings and open records.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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