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Strategies for FOIA success

Alison Young
Missouri School of Journalism Washington Program
@alisonannyoung
Why FOIA is wonderful!
Why FOIA is … frustrating!
And after
that wait,
you may
get …
Did the government do anything when warned?

@alisonannyoung
What did the government get for its money?
Grant report performance measures, data

@alisonannyoung
FOIA after breaking news
How often does this happen?
Make transparency a focus of reporting
Transparency coverage can spur action
FOIA as truth serum

A laboratory operated by the Centers


for Disease Control and Prevention is
among the handful of facilities that
have secretly had their permits
suspended in recent years for serious
safety violations while working with
bioterror pathogens, according to
documents obtained by USA TODAY
after winning a Freedom of Information
Act appeal.
Patience and persistence will be rewarded

 “… four scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and


Prevention stepped into their lab’s decontamination
chamber where a shower of chemicals was supposed to kill
anything on them and make it safe for them to exit into an
adjacent changing room.

 “But the shower wouldn’t start, and warning lights appeared


as a cascading series of safety systems began to fail inside
one of the world’s most advanced biosafety level 4 labs. ….
And as they held that door shut and started an emergency
chemical deluge, things got even worse.”

@alisonannyoung
Has someone else requested it?
Alternatives to FOIA FOIA logs and reading rooms
Use state FOI laws
Additional tips for making FOIA requests

Research and report before requesting: Know what


documents/data are collected and where they are
kept
Data requests: Ask for record layouts and code
books
Consider asking for a blank form
Anticipate what information the agency might seek
to withhold – address that in your request
Make time to FOIA, Stay organized

 Spreadsheet to track all


requests – detail all
contacts
 Folders for each
agency to store
correspondence
 Calendar alerts
Helpful Tools: DocumentCloud.org
Helpful tools: foia.wiki
Helpful tools: IRE tip sheets – ire.org
Strategies for FOIA success

Alison Young
Missouri School of Journalism Washington Program
@alisonannyoung