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‘Be specific, be clear, be human’: Strategies for obtaining public records

Need to file a public records request? Do a bit of front-end reporting first: Search for what’s publicly accessible, narrow the request, and get to know the government information officer who will be responding to your query.

Two experts in unearthing government documents shared that advice Wednesday, along with tips on how to craft and where to direct public records requests, during a National Press Club Journalism Institute video program on strategies for conducting successful document searches.

The program featured 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, and Mark Walker, FOIA coordinator for the Washington bureau of The New York Times and former training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors.

“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,” Spivack said. 

Once you’ve reached the limit of what you can obtain without an official request, narrow your approach.

“I treat FOIA and public records requests just like any other reporting assignment,” Walker said. “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.”

Key strategies for obtaining public records:

  • 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.

The work starts before you file

Spivack: “People need to think about what is out there already so that you don’t necessarily have to go through the formal FOIA or state public information act request. … If something is enforced, inspected, licenses, purchased — you can pretty much assume there is a public record for that. And depending on the state or the city or the county, some of those public records may be online already.” 

Other points:

  • Call the agency to see if you can get the data without filing a request.
  • Find out what the fees are and if they can be waived because your reporting is in the public interest.
  • Ask about regular reports the agency is required to make to the state or federal government.
  • Ask about financial documents, contracts, bond documents — anything that backs up payments to vendors, employees, elected officials.

Know and understand the gatekeeper

Spivack: “First of all, just basically get to know who holds on to the records, whether it’s the court clerk, the county clerk, the agency administrative assistant. Get them on the phone, ask them what is generally available, how do they retain the records, how long are they available for.”

Walker: “Be specific, be clear, be human — the person on the other end of your FOIA request is someone who is going to have to read it, interpret it and try to make sense of what you’re asking for. So you want to make sure you are as clear and concise as possible. Always put yourself in that FOIA officer’s shoes.

Other points:

  • FOIA and records requests apply to documents; do not ask whether certain documents or records exist. 
  • Learn how/where/why such records are kept.

Invest time in formulating your request 

Walker: “I’ve FOIA’d for hospital inspection records dozens of times. And one of the things that’s helped me be successful in getting those FOIAs to return is doing the research on CMS’ website to know that there is a specific name for the type of form that they use for inspections. … And so when I file a records request with CMS, whether it’s for inspection reports at a nursing home, or a hospital or mental health hospital, I go to CMS and I say I specifically want the name of this document.”

Other points:

  • The request must “reasonably describe” the records.
  • Be specific: Include keywords, custodians, date ranges, domains, etc.
  • Avoid ambiguity (words like “related to”).

Strategize timing for the agency’s response

Walker: “Each agency has a mechanism where it will allow you, the reporter, to make an argument as to why they should process your FOIA ahead of anyone else’s. And this is the section of your request you should spend the most time crafting.”

Other points:

  • In principle, the agency must make a “determination” within 20 business days.
  • In “unusual circumstances,” the agency may extend that deadline, usually by no more than 10 additional business days.
  • The agency doesn’t necessarily have to give you records then, but it has to tell you when it will do so.
  • Ask for an estimated date of completion.

To download a copy of the presentation, click here. To download a FOIA tip sheet by Spivack, click here.

This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch a recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.

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