Investigative journalists face many obstacles as they seek to gather information about an individual or an organization. However, when in comes to the federal and state governments, two sets of laws are in place to provide transparency.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1967, provides the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. The United States Department of Justice itself defines FOIA as “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.”
While the ability to file FOIA requests is a great resource, the panel of “Who’s Watching the Watchers? Journalists, Public Records and Investigative Reporting on Immigration and Law Enforcement" emphasized the importance of thinking critically about the desired information beforehand. How much time the public records officer will have to put into the request? What kind of story that can be written from the records?
Sunshine laws require government agencies to permit the public to attend their meetings and access their records. However, when meetings or records relate to certain issues, they may remain closed. These laws are implemented on a state level.
Both sets of laws allow investigative journalists to hold the government accountable and bring light on areas where government can improve. In order to do this, the panel pointed out, journalists must present the information they gather in a way that a lot of people can take information from it.
Having information for information’s sake won’t benefit the public. Request information that will add to a story and break it down into pieces that complete the puzzle.
The panel suggested approaching the data like an interview. Examine what names are on the information, how many rows of data, who created the database, etc. They insist that data isn’t intimidating — the more you analyze it, the easier it gets.
And finally, the age-old rule applies to FOIA requests: “You never know if you never ask.”