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Home > Publications > Quill > Let’s Teach Old Public Records Laws New Tricks



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Thursday, February 23, 2017
Let’s Teach Old Public Records Laws New Tricks

Special Report: FOI

By Michael Morisy

There’s good reason for existential angst about transparency in the Trump administration.

Breaking with precedent, President Donald Trump declined to release his tax returns as a candidate. He ditched his press pool. And while Freedom of Information Act requests from other people provided him endless speech and tweet fodder during his fight for the presidency, he has shown no eagerness to return the favor and strengthen the law. Instead, he’s hinted that too much transparency hinders America’s ability to make “good deals.”

But while there’s cause for concern, the truth is that FOIA and state public records laws have been taking a serious beating during the past 16 years.

Since 9/11, national security exemptions have spiraled out of control, expanding to cover not just necessary secrets but everything from parking tickets to how police monitor protests. A wave of outsourcing has meant trade secrets exemptions can now hide vast portions of governmental operations.

And gutting FOIA is sadly a bipartisan issue: Some of Hillary Clinton’s most visible supporters floated the idea of exempting emails entirely from FOIA, while over the past few years we’ve seen Republican-controlled legislatures try to gut state public records laws in Wisconsin and Florida.


But despite these setbacks, FOIA continues to be a uniquely powerful force for good, helping inform voters and hold government accountable, no matter who is in charge.

In 2016, right-to-know laws helped expose dangerous drug labs, rewrote the narratives around fatal police encounters and exposed countless examples of waste, fraud and abuse by the private and public sectors alike.

Public records can also be a powerful tool for rebuilding trust in the news media when it’s critically low: It shows readers how our work is done, makes it harder for public officials to spin damaging stories, and ultimately reaffirms that in a democracy, the government is in service to the people.

2017 will be a critical fight nationwide and at every level to keep FOIA a powerful tool for accountability. Here’s how journalists, no matter their beat, can help.

SHOW HOW THE SAUSAGE IS MADE

FOIA gives reporters an opportunity to show readers all the work, analysis and documentation required to do our job. By uploading primary documents through DocumentCloud or showing your requests with MuckRock, you build trust and demonstrate exactly how valuable your work is. You also make it harder for your work to be dismissed by public officials, an increasingly common tactic by those tapped for the country’s highest posts.

When an agency doesn’t respond to requests for information or provides a ridiculous denial, write about it. When you take an agency to court, write about it. When you win, write about it again.

SPREAD THE FOIA LOVE

In many newsrooms, there is go-to public records guru, the one person who knows freedom of information laws inside and out. Their knowledge is treated like some kind of dark transparency magic. But FOIA is better with friends.

Over the past seven years at MuckRock, we’ve found that agencies that receive public records requests from a variety of sources — reporters, public interest groups, regular citizens — are the ones that develop a healthy culture of transparency, while those that receive few requests are often the ones that put up the biggest road blocks.

You can help create a culture of transparency by hosting public records training and participating in events like the annual Sunshine Week every March. (See Sunshineweek.org for more.) Get involved with your state’s National Freedom of Information Coalition chapter (NFOIC.org). Encourage everyone in the newsroom to think about how they can use public records as part of their beat.


When you do a big investigation, share how others can follow up on their own with targeted FOIA requests. ProPublica did this wonderfully with its investigation into the Red Cross, and MuckRock has helped do similar FOIA crowdsourcing on issues as varied as policing and surveillance, gas leaks, and historical FBI files.

Not only do you give readers a new, more meaningful way to engage with your work, you also get a potential new source of future scoops.

FIGHT WITH EVERY WEAPON YOU HAVE

Over the past few years, important FOIA lawsuits have gotten a lot of attention. But suing is not — and can’t be — the only tool we have, particularly for cash-strapped newsrooms and independent journalists. At the federal level, a well-crafted appeal can often knock loose previously inaccessible documents.

In many cases, a well-written story can be just effective — not to mention cheaper and quicker — than a lawsuit.

It’s also important to build alliances for the long term. In 2017, let’s build bridges and find common ground with our readers, with non-profits and advocacy groups, and even with other news organizations to remind agencies that government information is the people’s information.

FOIA is strongest when it’s a right accessible to everyone.

Michael Morisy is co-founder of MuckRock, a news and information outlet focusing on access to public records. He was previously a Boston Globe editor and 2014-15 Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Email. On Twitter: @Morisy

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