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Free the data: Getting government agencies to give up the goods

By Rebecca Lai

Since the dawn of Wikileaks, the public has come to expect original documents. Often, however, government agencies refuse to cooperate and prevent reporters from getting their hands on original records. Even though the Freedom of Information Act and other statutes provide journalists with tools to negotiate, these laws still have flaws and loopholes. Deborah Nelson, Kirsten Mitchell, Michael Ravnitzky and Kate Willson shared tactics that can successfully get you what you're after.

Independent journalist Michael Ravnitzky kicked off the session by covering the basics of open record requests. Government agencies now have enough technical capacity to provide files in native database formats like sql and csv, Ravnitzky said. When files don't come in readable formats, don't hesitate to go back ask for the raw files. Always request data in the format it's maintained in. That's what the agency is required by federal law to provide.

Kirsten B. Mitchell, facilitator with the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), talked about other resources that are available to help journalists make better public record requests. Her office helps facilitate resolutions to FOIA disputes between requesters and federal agencies and reviews agency FOIA policies and procedures. Most agencies have record retention schedules that document the data they keep, how it's maintained and when it's eventually destroyed. Some agencies also provide the names of databases and their descriptions.

Kate Willson, a journalist at the Willamette Week in Portland, shared her experiences dealing with difficult FOIA officers. Most of the time people are polite and nice when talking to journalists. But when agencies refuse to talk, record retention schedules become extremely handy. Reaching out to employees is another way to understand records and details about them.

If an official rejects your records request, make a written request for reconsideration. Study the open records law and write letters packed with legal arguments. These appeals should mention why certain data formats are impossible to use for meaningful analysis. Providing data in non-readable formats could require manual input or using other programs that might introduce errors.

Deborah Nelson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, finished the session with some legal arguments for negotiating records. When filing a FOIA request, the government agency must justify every field, case, or cell it plans to withhold with a statutory exemption.

Doing good opposition research is crucial for making a persuasive legal argument. allows you to see each agency's most common exemptions so you can anticipate the exemptions agencies would throw at you. Legal research will help with understanding the loopholes and improve your chances at winning over FOIA officers. The US Department of Justice Guide to Freedom of Information Act, which provides an authoritative interpretation of each FOIA exemption, is full of language you can grab and quote.

Finally, the "presumption of openness" directives from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder can also work as a final catch-all argument. Agencies "should not withhold information simply because [they] may do so legally."


Rebecca Lai is an aspiring visual journalist and student at Northwestern University Knight Lab. She is a former Texas Tribune News Apps Intern and a 2014 CAR Conference Knight Scholar.

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