New FOIA tip sheet can help you get the government…

New Foia Tip Sheet Can Help You Get The Government…

Barbara Mantel (@BJMantel), a freelance community correspondent for AHCJ, is an independent journalist.
Her work has been featured in publications such as CQ Researcher, Rural Health Quarterly, Undark, Healthline,, and NPR. She assists members in locating the resources they require to be successful as freelancers and encourages your feedback.

New Foia Tip Sheet Can Help You Get The Government Hellip

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Several AHCJ freelancing members have requested a tip sheet on how to make FOIA/open records requests to federal, state, and local government bodies. I’d only filed a couple of these requests in my journalism career, so I turned to an expert, New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute subject librarian Katy Boss.

Boss has prepared a clear and helpful guide on assisting journalism students with FOIA (federal government) and FOIL (state and local government) requests in New York (also known as Sunshine Law or open records requests in other states).

As a tip sheet, AHCJ has reprinted a minimally altered version. I provided links to two websites that provide open records information for every state at the bottom, as well as connections to the FOIA webpages of federal agencies of particular importance to health care journalists.

“I enjoy submitting FOIA requests,” Boss added. Many journalists may disagree, but Boss advises not to be scared by the procedure and suggests that journalists who have never written one file a few “for fun” to get experience.

“It’s incredibly easy if you get the hang of it,” she remarked. However, as most journalists who have filed FOIAs know, getting a response can take months, though state and municipal requests typically take less time.

Boss suggests many websites in her guide that can assist journalists in locating the appropriate government entity to contact and providing templates for the basic phrasing of a request. For example, FOIA Machine assists journalists in drafting and sending their request letters.

Other websites, such as DocumentCloud, compile the findings of journalists’ Freedom of Material Act requests so that others may check if the information they’re looking for has already been obtained. DocumentCloud is a good place to start for journalists who are new to the process, according to Boss. Journalists will “not only upload the documents they obtained, but also the dialogue they had with the FOIA officer,” according to Boss. “I believe that is inexhaustibly useful.”

The most difficult and crucial element of drafting a FOIA is determining exactly what to request so that the request isn’t refused on a technicality, according to Boss. Journalists should learn what kinds of records the agency keeps, how long it keeps them, and what the records are called before making a request, she said.

“Sometimes the agencies will post their records retention schedules online, or they will have some sort of paperwork file about the different types of documents they keep,” said Boss. “However, if they’re particularly petty, they may force you to file a FOIA for their records schedule.”

She advised calling the agency’s FOIA officer or custodian of records for assistance. Due to the pandemic, many FOIA officers are working remotely and may not be approachable by phone, according to a recent review of various federal agency websites.

Many journalists who ultimately acquire the information they seek face a significant challenge in making sense of it all. It can arrive in difficult-to-understand formats, or the lingo could be “inside baseball,” she said. This is especially true if the journalist has been given access to raw data. Expert sources should be contacted and asked to review the documents or data sets with you, according to Boss.

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