Project: Ten FOIAs to finish
Get ready for a New Year and a new President with 10 public records requests (FOIA, state, and local)
If you have a FOIA log from earlier in the quarter, you can use that.
Research and send out 10 more public records requests. File them in a FOIA log that looks like mine.
You can use MuckRock, or do things the old-fashioned way. Just give me a spreadsheet of boilerplate information about what you requested, why, and what your inspiration was. Be able to describe your interest and motivation with at least a few paragraphs.
Please sign up for MuckRock if you haven’t already and send me an email with your MuckRock username so I can upgrade you.
For the FOIA log, you can just have a requests tab as I have for my FOIA Log. Nothing fancy.
Have at least 3 federal level requests
Have at least 2 state-level requests (California or otherwise)
Relevant reading: Having singular data and focus
Deadlines and passion
File those 10 requests on MuckRuck, or by old-fashioned email. Fill out a spreadsheet like this:
Sometimes I'll set up milestones to prevent students turning in a spreadsheet of shit requests at the last minute. But I'm not doing that this time, partly because it's really not-fun to keep tabs on your spreadsheets. And because I trust that you, having several weeks to think things over, can do a great job at even a leisurely pace.
So you're given several weeks to think about what you want to find out. This could be related to your current beat, or what you think your thesis will be. Or because you're just curious about your government.
Let's be honest; you need to think about yourself
I kind of hate this assignment/project. Because while I love helping you carry out the process and, sometimes, fighting the system, I honestly don't care what you think is interesting when it comes to public records. Public records is about as "You do You" as it gets. When it comes to public records, we're all entitled to the same information, and to 99.9% of people, a given public record is really just boring. It's up to you as a journalist to have a reason to care and to know what you want.
Don't do this exercise because out of fear that I'm going to heavily dock you for doing it last minute. Do it because you see the potential in what you, personally and professionally, will get out of it. Plus, having a record of what you know and what you want to know makes it much easier for me and the other faculty to anticipate what you need for your ongoing projects.
Following-up is OK
It doesn't have to be ground-breaking or creative. Checkout my MuckRock profile.
My first request was for "Japanese Diplomatic Secrets" – apparently the first and only manuscript the United States has ever seized. I read about it from James Bamford, the patron saint of FOIA, and I just wanted to know what bureaucracies this request would go through even though Bamford already successfully FOIAed a copy.
My second request was for all federal employee salaries, for 2008, 2009, and 2016, because I saw the dataset FOIAed by and published on Enigma.io (a great place to find datasets). I don't care about anyone on the payroll specifically, but since President Trump has made freezing federal hiring one of his big promises, we're going to need a dataset to compare 2017-2020 with.
Even without MuckRock, it's already easy to send out public records requests; Google can find you boilerplate and people to contact. So don't see this as hard work, get into a records state of mind and think about what would be nice to have, a few months from now, for your journalistic endeavors.
Reading and examples
- FOI for pros: A step-by-step guide, via SPJ
- Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press
Lists of lists
- FOIA.gov data
- Every FOIA Request Log by Department for City of Chicago
- MuckRock's list of completed requests is an endless supply of curiosity and inspiration. Here's a few examples I found last year.
- The FOIA Mapper project is relatively new and contains detailed logs for federal agencies.
- California state law requires each agency to publish a catalog of everything they have. Very little of that has actually been requested by the public.
- What other people in our Muckrock org have requested