3 tips on accessing public records from home

Public records are like the mirepoix of journalism: They serve as the base of a complex story.

With documents in hand, reporters can uncover everything from how a gas company undermined the city of Austin’s climate change proposal to whether certain public figures have paid their taxes

We asked Mark Walker, Freedom of Information Act researcher at The New York Times Washington Bureau, for his recommendations on how to obtain documents in the work-from-home era.

What are your top three tips for journalists accessing public records databases remotely?

Walker: Think like a Freedom of Information Act officer. Be specific. Be clear. Be human. 

The request must “reasonably describe” the records. It should enable “a professional employee of the agency who is familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort.”

Always appeal your public records requests. Even when you get records released to you, file an appeal and try to get more.

Do your homework upfront. Know what you’re looking for and know exactly the name of what you are asking for. Take the time to learn how, where and why that information is kept.

What are the common mistakes to avoid when requesting public documents?

Walker: A common mistake I see when making public records requests relates more to the Freedom of Information Act requests sent to the federal government. A common mistake is using the fact that you’re a journalist to argue for expedited processing. Each federal agency has its sort of standards for granting expedited processing on FOIA requests. 

For example, the Department of Justice states what two circumstances they will approve expedited processing: First, whenever a requester establishes that the request involves a “loss of substantial due process rights” or second when the request concerns “[a] matter of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there exist possible questions about the government’s integrity which affect public confidence.” 

A trick I use to try to get expedited processing approved is to tie my request to a concrete event in the near future.

If a journalist is denied access to a document that should be public, what do you recommend?

Walker: Try getting on the phone to better understand why your request was denied. It could be as simple as a problem with the way the request was crafted. Missing a word or poor wording could be the difference between getting a tranche of records or getting a “no records found” response for the agency. Always make sure you have the agency denying your request to cite the laws they are using to base their decision on. If all else fails then appeal the agency’s decisions.

Walker participated in an Institute program on strategies for obtaining public records during the pandemic. Watch here:

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