By Michael Mansur
Special to TelevisionWeek
If there is one clear thing that can distinguish you as an “investigative reporter,” it may be this: You regularly file freedom-of-information requests.
Most reporters can fill their days by attending press events, interviewing sources or monitoring public meetings for the latest information. You can run such traps each day and produce many good stories.
But you will never set yourself apart as an enterprising reporter, an “investigative reporter,” if you don’t independently seek documents and data. And most often that requires filing with local, state or federal officials what’s become known as an “FOIA,” or a freedom-of-information request.
Ken Ward, the environment reporter at the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, says he feels a little less than whole if he hasn’t filed a records request in a week. Filing at least a couple FOIAs a month might be an attainable goal. On my beat-covering local government for The Kansas (Mo.) City Star, which sometimes involves an environmental story-I may file three to six information requests a month. Many of these are required because the local government wants that piece of paper in their files before they’ll produce the records.
Sometimes they also want it to be able to charge you fees for their time to run computer programs or search for the records.
Often I find that such requests produce data that public officials have never analyzed. Analyzing it yourself and producing a story will put you, not your sources, in control of the story.
What follows are a number of key points to keep in mind about filing freedom-of-information requests, followed by a sample letter offered by Seth Borenstein, who writes about the environment in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau.
These tips come from me, Ward and other veteran reporters who have presented advice at journalism conferences, including the Investigative Reporters & Editors national conference.
You can also get further advice, boilerplate, wisdom and experience from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Its guidebook, “How to Use the Federal FOI Act,” is available online. See especially the two chapters on fee waivers, “You may ask for a fee waiver” and “You may have to pay fees.” For further advice, contact RCFP’s Rebecca Daugherty (or anyone else) at 800-336-4243 or 703-807-2100, or email at email@example.com.
Also, check out recent studies by media organizations on the response of public agencies in your state to records requests, as well as numerous state audits that have looked at compliance with state law governing open meetings and records. Several state audits have been completed in recent years.
Finally, here’s a sample FOIA request, used with permission, based on texts used successfully by Seth Borenstein of Knight Ridder News Service:
(submit on letterhead:)
[Requester’s address block]
Ms. Betty Lopez
United States Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue: 2822-T
Washington, DC 20460
(202) 566-1667 FAX
(202) 566-2147 via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; ONLY ELECTRONICALLY
Dear Ms. Lopez, I am [Name], reporter [or other job title] for [name of publication or outlet]. Pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552, I request access to and copies of the following materials: [Point-by-point description of documents requested, as specific and helpful as possible].
As a news media representative I am only required to pay for the direct cost of duplication after the first 100 pages. As a news media representative, I ask you to please waive any applicable fees. In the following eight paragraphs I will underscore my reasons in response to your guidelines on fee requests. I understand that is a separate process than my FOIA request. So I ask that you initiate both processes simultaneously. In other words, please start processing the FOIA request itself as you are doing the fee-waiver request. In the event that you disallow my fee-waiver request, I pledge to pay the price of the FOIA request up to $[dollar amount, suggested not less than $250].
Please notify me upon passing the $100, $200, $300, and $400 threshold if this is before a decision on fee-waiver request or if my fee-waiver is denied, however unwarranted that event may be. This paragraph should serve to authorize you to begin to accrue such charges, pending a decision on the fee-waiver request.
Through this FOIA request I am gathering vital information on the activities of the taxpayer-funded EPA that is important to the public’s understanding of how its environmental protection agency spends public money and whether it is doing so in compliance with federal laws.
Now, let me specifically address the six hurdles used by the FOIA for fee-waiver determination.
1. The subje
ct matter of the requested records must specifically concern identifiable operations or activities of the government. (Explain why you meet this test, even if obvious.)
2. The disclosure should be “likely to contribute” to an understanding of government operations or activities. (Explain why you meet this test, even if obvious.)
3. The disclosure must contribute to the understanding of the public at large, as opposed to the requester or a narrow segment of interested persons. (Explain why you meet this test, even if obvious. Description of your audience and its size is helpful here.)
4. The disclosure must contribute “significantly” to the public understanding of government operations. (Explain why you meet this test, even if obvious.)
5. The disclosure will not serve any commercial interest of me as an individual. (Explain why you meet this test, even if obvious.)
Borenstein’s boilerplate: “My company will not likely sell a single newspaper more because of the disclosure. This is just a matter of a newspaper company fulfilling its public duty to ferret out the truth about the way government operates. In fact, the entire process will likely cost my company money.”
6. The public interest in disclosure far outweighs commercial interest.
Borenstein’s boilerplate: “First, as shown above, there is a massive amount of public interest. Second, as shown above, there is little if any commercial interest.”
If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the Act and release all segregable portions of otherwise exempt material. I reserve the right to appeal.
As I am requesting this information as a daily journalist and this information is of timely value, please contact me by telephone, rather than by mail, if you have questions regarding this request. My phone number is [phone number]. My e-mail is [e-mail].
I look forward to your reply within 10 business days, as the statute requires.
Thank you in advance for your assistance.
[organization or company]
Michael Mansur edits the SEJournal and writes for The Kansas City (Mo.) Star. This report first appeared in the SEJournal. Ken Ward, Robert McClure, Joe Davis and Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.