Need to file a public records request? Try these tips from two FOIA experts

“If you can get the people who are the gatekeepers to all this to get to know you — even on the phone or maybe they’ll FaceTime or Zoom with you — a lot of times they’ll just give it to you,” said Miranda Spivack, a former Washington Post editor and reporter and a journalism fellow at the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. 

“I treat FOIA and public records requests just like any other reporting assignment,” said Mark Walker, FOIA coordinator for the Washington bureau of The New York Times. “And the thing you want to do is be able to specifically walk that FOIA officer exactly to the records that you’re looking for. Tell them the name of the records, where they’re located, and what specifically you’re looking for, and break them up.”

Spivack and Walker shared strategies for conducting successful document searches at a recent National Press Club Journalism Institute video program. Their top five tips:

  • See if documents you want are already available on government websites or e-reading rooms.
  • Get to know the official who is the records gatekeeper.
  • Do your homework so you can be specific in your request.
  • Ask if search fees can be waived because your reporting is in the public interest.
  • Seek expedited processing.

Click here for more highlights from the August 5, 2020 program.

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