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.”
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.”