Mountains of vital stories about the coronavirus are hidden in public records. Here’s how to FOIA for them.

Set up a pipeline of coronavirus story ideas with the help of BuzzFeed investigative reporter Jason Leopold and MuckRock founder Michael Morisy.

May 11, 2020

Covering a crisis — particularly one the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic — means pushing out daily stories and providing minute-by-minute updates on infections, deaths, closures and cancellations.

But eventually, the curve will flatten and journalists will start reporting on how public officials handled the crisis.

That’s not to say reporters aren’t doing that already. But there are a lot of hidden documents, emails, contracts and conversations to be uncovered that will put governments’ initial responses into context. Did our governments protect us and save lives? Or could they have done better?

Between January and mid-March, Buzzfeed investigative reporter Jason Leopold filed more than 27 public records requests to 18 different agencies for documents related to the coronavirus pandemic. Public officials have called Leopold a “FOIA terrorist.”

For reporters who don’t generally use the Freedom of Information Act or similar state-level laws, asking for public records about the coronavirus now could trigger a wave of unique stories that go beyond infections, deaths, cancelations and closures.

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“What I’m trying to do is create a pipeline of story ideas,” said Leopold, who has filed a lawsuit against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for records. He knows it could be months until he gets responses from the agencies with which he’s filed requests.

When he saw the U.S. National Guard rolling into New Rochelle, New York, in March, Leopold thought it would be an opportunity to exercise FOIA. What was their directive? Who gave the order? FOIA can help construct the narrative leading up to something as jarring as witnessing the military deploying to a U.S. suburb.

“The public is confused or wondering what they can rely upon,” Leopold said. “I do think that documents are so crucial and so important because they speak for themselves — especially government documents.”

Before you look up an agency’s FOIA office and fire off a request for coronavirus documents, here are a few tips for getting the most out of it.

Take your time and treat each FOIA request like an investigative story

That’s how Leopold characterizes it — and that goes for what you should tell your editor. Spend a day researching what types of documents an agency may have, how long requests typically take and what, if any, have already been released to the public.

You should be able to find FOIA reading rooms with the latter records. And, it’s slightly meta, but you can always FOIA for the latest FOIAs to see what documents have been or might soon be released.

Be specific

I filed a FOIA for the last 50 FOIAs (tired of the acronym yet?) received by the CDC in March. The most recent request the CDC had received said: “I’m requesting any and all records, including but not limited to emails, pertaining to and/or mentioning the novel coronavirus and/or COVID-19,” with a date range of nearly three months.

That’s not a great request. It is going to be expensive (usually agencies will charge for search time) and will likely be rejected anyway due to lack of specificity. Try this: “Any text messages between [AGENCY DIRECTOR] and [AGENCY PRESS SECRETARY] between the dates of March 23 and April 1.”

Don’t go right for emails

Sure, emails are a great start for FOIA, since you can usually find out how public officials are talking about something like the COVID-19 pandemic or planning their responses before they release public information.

But Leopold notes that many times emails can take the longest to receive, since often agencies will talk amongst one another, requiring redaction and release from multiple stakeholders.

Be patient

“Public records are your right, but agencies are also under immense strain, whether due to skyrocketing public demand for services, remote work, or reduced staff,” said Michael Morisy, founder and executive director of MuckRock. “We hope that agencies will continue processing requests and help expedite requests in the public interest at this critical time for trustworthy information, but understanding and empathy goes a long way — and it usually pays off for requesters.”

Use examples

Have any other agencies released similar documents? If so, tell the FOIA officer giving you a hard time what you have already pried loose from other parts of the government. It might jar something loose.

What to look for

What types of documents should you be FOIA’ing? COVID-19 touches nearly every aspect of U.S. life, from public health to unemployment insurance systems, so you have a wide range of agencies to target and documents to request.

Here are some common documents to request based on my interview with BuzzFeed’s Leopold and MuckRock’s Morisy — and my own curiosity.

  • Text messages between press leads and public officials
  • Daily briefings or talking points
  • Pandemic response plans
  • Surveillance plans or contracts with surveillance firms
  • Military directives
  • Requests to the federal government for supplies
  • Inventories (think ventilators or N95 masks)
  • Citations for businesses violating bans
  • Post-pandemic economic development plans

The list could go on forever. But if you are patient and specific, you should be able to tap a lucrative vein for story ideas now — and when we are finally free of COVID-19.

Alex Mahadevan is a senior multimedia reporter at MediaWise. He can be reached at amahadevan@poynter.org or on Twitter at @AlexMahadevan. Follow MediaWise on TikTok.