By Andrew Kreighbaum
Working on a beat where most sources prefer to remain anonymous, VICE News reporter Jason Leopold has turned to extensive and aggressive FOIA work to get officials on the record.
Leopold, who covers national security, said he has 1,500 FOIA requests out at any one time.
“I then seek out the people who are in those documents and they feel far more comfortable discussing those issues,” he said.
To get those documents, Leopold has gone “to war” with the government, suing for various records. It’s a tedious process, but the payoff has been huge, he said. He urged reporters to make use of FOIA lawsuits to get documents and pushed back on the notion that they are prohibitively expensive.
“What you’re talking about is just going to the top of the pile,” he said. “It’s a few thousand dollars. I think it’s a worthy investment.”
Among the other FOIA tips Leopold offered reporters:
Appeal everything, even if you get records in response to a request. Agencies will sometimes find additional documents.
Look out for responses that cite exemptions such as 7(A) for ongoing investigations. Leopold said that language can indicate agencies aren’t even searching to determine if they have releasable documents.
Within requests for email, ask FOIA officers to also check trash bins.
Read and understand the Freedom of Information Act and study the language in successful requests and lawsuits to understand what phrasing works best.
Request processing notes for your FOIA request – basically, the metadata for your request – to find out how it is being handled by an agency. That’s how Leopold found out the FBI referred to him as a “FOIA terrorist.”
Keep track of FOIA requests in Excel and calendar programs to stay on top of when responses are due.
Brandon Smith, an independent journalist who sued the city of Chicago for release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, said it’s critical for journalists to remain persistent even when initially denied records. Fourteen other requests were filed by news organizations for the video, he said. All were denied.
“When they were told no, they went away,” he said.
Smith said his success obtaining the video showed that reporters can pursue lawsuits for release of records without big organizations behind them.
Andrew Kreighbaum is currently a graduate researcher at the Investigative Reporting Workshop and recently finished a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. He has previously reported on education and local government for newspapers in Texas including The El Paso Times, The Monitor and the Laredo Morning Times.