The transportation beat: Investigative reporter shares must-request records & biggest access issues

Mark Walker is an investigative reporter at the New York Times.
NYTCREDIT: Greg Kahn for The New York Times

It is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information launched by the News Leaders Association in 2005. To commemorate the occasion, we’ve asked journalists across different beats to share their tips for requesting open records and responding when facing roadblocks to access.  

Today, we hear from Mark Walker, an investigative reporter who covers transportation for The New York Times and president of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

What are the biggest access issues you have faced when seeking records in the airline industry?

Walker: There are several FOIA exemptions tied to transportation records. The most challenging one when it comes to access would probably be Exemption 7, which relates to information from an investigation that is ongoing.

There have been several near-miss airplane collisions at airports across the country. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a close call between a Learjet and a JetBlue flight on Feb. 27, at Boston Logan International Airport. These types of incidents are being investigated by the Department of Transportation and independently by the National Transportation Safety Board. Release of this information is exempt under FOIA exemption 7, which prohibits the release of information tied to an active investigation. 

What are examples of public records that reporters should ask for on the transportation beat? 


  • Motor vehicle collision crash data
  • Airline consumer complaint data
  • Transit crime data 
  • Airlines’ on-time and flight delay data
  • Federal Railway Administration train derailment data 
  • Electric vehicle charging stations data

The agencies [to contact for these records] would be the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

How do you narrow a request without losing the scope of what you’re trying to get? 

Walker: Federal agencies are required to have a FOIA public liaison who is a supervisory official to whom requesters can raise concerns about the status of their requests and negotiate the scope of their requests. Nothing prevents requesters from contacting these FOIA public liaisons to talk through a request. 

If you are looking to narrow your request, you can do a couple of things: 

For starters, you can request a rolling production of records. Often, a FOIA office will hold off releasing the records to your request until it has every document in hand. To help, pitch a rolling request.

If the agency says there are too many responsive records to process promptly, talk to them about eliminating potentially non-responsive records from your request. An example of a non-responsive record could be internal agency newsletters sent by email. 

Another obstacle that could require you to limit the scope of a request is when the estimated completion date seems excessive. A requester could try limiting the search to a specific period or to several officials within the agency you’ve filed the request with. Adding keywords also could help limit the request.

Share your FOIA and open records successes — or how you’ve worked around roadblocks — with The Latest subscribers. We’d love to feature your advice in our newsletter. 

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