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How to get data from government agencies for any beat

By Chelsea Sheasley

You want to submit a public records request. Where do you start? How do you ask? What if you’re denied?

Mike Donoghue, forty-year veteran of The Burlington Free Press, and Ellen Gabler of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shared their tips and experiences during “The Ask: Requesting and Negotiating for Data.”

Donoghue’s top tip was for reporters to become very familiar with their state’s open government laws, suggesting reading the laws word-for-word at least once a year. He shared how he was able to get Vermont to release state and municipal pensions that they had never given out before by finding a section of the law that actually provided for their release.

Donoghue also recommended chatting frequently with government workers who actually maintain datasets: “a lot of time people don’t talk to them, so they love to talk,” he said.

Other tips from Donoghue:

  • Make verbal requests first. Then submit your request in writing.
  • Be puzzled/ask why when records aren’t released.
  • Don’t accept no for an answer. There’s always someone higher up.
  • If denied, write about it. Write about every time an agency fails to meet the required response time for your state.

Gabler, who said she had never made records requests before getting involved with IRE, said “I absolutely think all reporters should be requesting databases as a matter of routine on their beat.”

She recommends asking agencies that you cover how they maintain their data, including getting a records layout that tells you what is in a database. Once you have a record layout, you can tailor your request to the information you need. Lean on the side of getting more data, Gabler said, but for huge databases like OSHA, requesting specific portions is usually most helpful.

Other tips from Gabler:

  • Talk to the person who administers the database ahead of time to find out the limitations of the data.
  • Keep track of your records requests and all your correspondence with the agency.
  • Call every day if an agency isn’t responding in a timely manner.

Both Donoghue and Gerber stressed getting into the mindset of submitting regular requests.

“I put it in my calendar to fill out a FOI request every Thursday,” Donoghue said.

Chelsea Sheasley is a graduate student at Boston University College of Communication 



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