Member Login | Join SPJ | Benefits | Rates

> Latest News, Blogs and Events (tap to expand)

Advertise with SPJ
Advertise with SPJ

SPJ Leads

News and More
Click to Expand Instantly

SPJ News
SPJ Blogs
Quill Online
Journalist's Toolbox

Stay in Touch
Twitter Storify Facebook Google Plus
RSS Pinterest Pinterest Flickr

Your Right to Know
Find FOI in your state

Get in touch with the Sunshine chair or chairs in your state and find FOI Centers, quotable sources, resources and more by using the menu below.

Freedom of Information
Covering Prisons
Project Sunshine: Find FOI Help
Accessing Government Records
Shield Law Campaign
FOI Audit Tookit | PDF
Anti-SLAPP: Protect Free Speech
Official Secrets Act bill
FOI Groups
Annual FOI Reports
FOI Committee Roster

FOI FYI: SPJ’s FOI Committee Blog
Obama White House Doesnt Address Complaints on Its Censorship through PIOs, etc.
DOJ Should Improve Requirements For How Death In Police Custody Data Is Collected
SPJ past president testifies to Senate: More FOIA work needed

FOI Committee
This committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public's access to documents and the government's business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.

Freedom of Information Committee Chair

Jonathan Anderson
Public issues investigative reporter
Marshfield News-Herald
Marshfield, Wisc.
Phone: 920-676-5399
Bio (click to expand) picture Jonathan Anderson is a public issues investigative reporter for the Marshfield News-Herald in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Before joining the News-Herald, in 2015, Jonathan was a reporter for a pair of newspapers in northern Wisconsin for nearly two years. He has held internships at the First Amendment Center, Wisconsin Law Journal, Wisconsin Public Radio and WISN-TV, and was also editor in chief of his college newspaper, the UWM Post.

Jonathan is an avid requester of public records, and his work in the FOI arena has also entailed advocacy and research. He has been the plaintiff in two lawsuits challenging improper government secrecy. He helped obtain a legal opinion from the Wisconsin attorney general that found University of Wisconsin System student government groups subject to the state’s open meetings law. His master’s thesis, “Resolving Public Records Disputes in Wisconsin: The Role of the Attorney General's Office,” investigated how the Wisconsin attorney general reviews and sometimes intervenes in access disputes. And he has volunteered for the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

FOI Committee Members

Sonny Albarado
Projects Editor
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
121 E. Capitol Ave.
Little Rock, AR 72201
Work: 501-244-4321
Fax: 501-372-4765
Bio (click to expand) picture As projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Sonny Albarado supervises reporters on investigative and explanatory journalism assignments. He holds a bachelor’s degree and an honorary doctor of letters from Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, La.

His journalism career of more than 40 years includes lengthy sojourns in Baton Rouge, La., and Memphis, Tenn. He has been a reporter, an assistant city editor, a business editor (twice), a projects editor (twice), a news editor and a city editor. He also briefly edited a trade magazine dedicated to the coin-operated amusement industry.

He has been involved in the defense of the First Amendment and the free flow of information since his days as editor of his college’s student newspaper. A member of SPJ since 1979, he is a past president of SPJ and a current member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

All awards he’s received have been the result of good editors when he was a reporter and excellent reporters since he’s been an editor.

Ana-Klara H. Anderson, Ph.D., Esq.
Thomas & LoCicero PL
601 South Boulevard
Tampa, Florida 33606
Work: 813-984-3069
Fax: 813-984-3070
Bio (click to expand) picture Ana-Klara Anderson is an associate in Thomas & LoCicero’s Tampa office and frequently handles litigation and transactional matters for English and Spanish-language media clients in the areas of First Amendment law, sweepstakes and contests, commercial litigation, and arts and entertainment law. She earned her J.D. from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and her Ph.D. from UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. Ana-Klara has worked as a freelance journalist for the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, and as a news clerk for the Washington Post. Before graduate school, she served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq.

Carolyn S. Carlson
Associate Professor
Department of Communication
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, GA 30114-5591
Bio (click to expand) picture Carolyn S. Carlson has written reports for SPJ's 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 Sunshine Week projects on surveys she conducted on the strained relationship between reporters and government public information officers. She also chairs the SPJ FOI Committee’s Subcommittee on FERPA. She has also been a leader in the effort to improve public access to records involving student discipline and crime on the nation’s college campuses. She founded the multi-organizational Campus Courts Task Force, which received an SPJ Freedom of Information Award in 1998 for its success in changing federal law to increase public access to college disciplinary records involving serious crime. Carlson has a doctorate from Georgia State University and her bachelors from the University of Georgia. She is an associate professor of journalism at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta. She is a former political press secretary and a longtime reporter and editor for The Associated Press. She was national president of SPJ in 1989-1990, chaired the SPJ Ethics Committee in 1993-94, and received SPJ’s Wells Key in 1994.

Jodi Cleesattle
Deputy Attorney General
California Department of Justice
San Diego, CA
Bio (click to expand) picture Jodi Cleesattle is a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, where she works in the Civil Division in San Diego. Prior to joining the Attorney General’s Office, she was a partner at Ross, Dixon & Bell, LLP, in San Diego, where she handled media law cases and other commercial litigation. Jodi previously worked as a daily news reporter for The Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette, covering politics and legal issues, and was founding editor of The National Jurist, a national magazine for law students. Jodi serves on SPJ's national board as Region 11 director and on SPJ’s national FOI Committee and Legal Defense Fund Committee. She is SPJ Project Sunshine Chair for Southern California and a board member of the SPJ San Diego Pro Chapter and was president of the San Diego Pro Chapter from 2007-09. She also serves as editor of Lawyers Club News, the monthly newsletter of Lawyers Club of San Diego, a bar association dedicated to the advancement of women in the law and society, and she freelances for San Diego Lawyer magazine.

David Cuillier
Director and Associate Professor
School of Journalism
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
Work: 520-626-9694
Bio (click to expand) David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he researches and teaches access to public records, and is co-author with Charles Davis of "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records." He served as FOI chair 2007-11 before becoming a national officer and serving as SPJ president in 2013-14.

Before entering academia, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Pacific Northwest. He has testified before Congress on FOI issues twice and provides newsroom training in access on behalf of SPJ. His long-term goal is to see a unified coalition of journalism organizations fighting for press freedom and funded through an endowed FOI war chest.

Charles Davis
Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Georgia
120 Hooper Street
Athens, GA 30602
Work: 706-248-6636

Mike Farrell
Director, Scripps Howard First Amendment Center
Associate professor
School of Journalism & Telecommunications
144 Grehan
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Ky 40506-0042
859-257-4848 (w)
859-431-2057 (h)
Bio (click to expand) picture Mike Farrell serves as director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and as an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He began teaching as an adjunct in 1980 at Northern Kentucky University, continued as a graduate teaching assistant at UK in 1996, and has been a full-time faculty member there since 2000. He won the college teaching award in 2006.

He teaches reporting, media ethics, media law, journalism history, editing, media law, covering religion news and column writing.

He was a reporter, city editor and managing editor during a 20-year career at The Kentucky Post.

A native of Northern Kentucky, he earned his undergraduate degree at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees at UK, where he focused on media law. He is a member of the Bluegrass Chapter and co-adviser of the UK student chapter of SPJ.

Paul Fletcher
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
Virginia Lawyers Weekly

Bio (click to expand) Paul Fletcher has been publisher and editor-in-chief at Virginia Lawyers Weekly in Richmond, Virginia, since 1989. He joined the newspaper the previous year as news editor, after practicing law in Southwest Virginia for three years.

A graduate of the Washington & Lee University law school, he earned his undergraduate degree at the College of William & Mary and an M.A. in English from Emory University.

Fletcher has been a member of SPJ since 1992 and serves on the SPJ Ethics Committee. He is the immediate past president of the Virginia Pro chapter.

He has won a number of state and national journalism awards, including honors for editorial, feature and column writing.

Roy Gutterman
Associate Professor
Newhouse School
Syracuse University
215 University Place
Syracuse, NY 13244
Bio (click to expand) picture Roy Gutterman is an associate professor and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. A former newspaper reporter and lawyer, he teaches classes in media law and journalism and writes and speaks on free speech, free press, freedom of information and First Amendment issues. He is co-adviser to the Syracuse SPJ Chapter.

Kathryn Foxhall
Freelance Reporter
Washington, D.C., area
3921 Crittenden St.
Hyattsville, Maryland 20781
Work: 301-779-8239
Bio (click to expand) picture Kathryn Foxhall has covered health in Washington for almost 40 years, including 14 years (1978-1992) as editor of the American Public Health Association’s newspaper.

She accidently became a reporter after applying for a typing job at the now defunct Selma Free-Press in Selma, Alabama, with her new B.A. from Birmingham-Southern College.

Currently freelancing for Contemporary Pediatrics and other publications, she previously worked for the American Psychological Association’s magazine and for newsletters on substance abuse and medical coding.

After years of getting a dynamic education by speaking frankly with sources on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies, she became alarmed as federal workers came under rules prohibiting them from communicating with journalists without the oversight of the public relations offices—in reality oversight by people in power.

That concern has led to a number of efforts including doing “shoe leather” work on the letter to President Obama from 38 journalism and other groups in 2014.

Ashley Jost
Higher education reporter
Columbia Daily Tribune
101 N. 4th Street
Columbia, Mo.
Office: 573-815-1721
Cell: 314-397-5484

Jennifer Karchmer
Independent journalist
RWB Correspondent
2505 Monroe Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
518 569-9118
Bio (click to expand) picture Jennifer Karchmer is an independent journalist who has worked in print, radio, TV and Internet-based reporting since 1991. She is a member of SPJ Western Washington Pro chapter.
In 2012, Jennifer was awarded First Place in the SPJ Northwest Excellence in Journalism Contest for her research and writing on Iceland as a free press haven. She was also awarded news citations by the Washington Press Association for her international reporting and for “The Transparency Report,” a self-produced series on the coal port proposal near Bellingham, WA.

Jennifer has worked for the Associated Press, McClatchy, Gannett and CNN. Currently, she is based in France studying freedom of the press in Europe. She is an internationally accredited TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher.

Danielle McLean
Somerville Journal
91 Glenwood Road, Apt. 1
Somerville, Mass., 02145
Phone: 508-725-8716
Bio (click to expand) picture Over the past three years, Danielle McLean has been the reporter for 13 different community beats at numerous news publications around Massachusetts. She is currently a reporter for the Somerville Journal, a weekly newspaper owned by GateHouse Media New England- covering a Boston-area city of more than 75,000 residents. McLean covers Somerville's rapidly-changing demographic shift, massive development surge, and acts as a watchdog while the government pushes more and more initiatives that encourage those changes.

The Hofstra graduate was elected President of SPJ's New England chapter in December. Since, the chapter has hosted a successful Region 1 conference at Boston University, has grown enrollment, and added five new board members.

Last winter, McLean was given a New England Newspaper and Press Association government reporting award for her coverage on a proposed development in Maynard, Massachusetts.

Linda Petersen
Managing Editor
The Valley Journals
12702 Ann Christine Ct.
Riverton, Utah
801-254-5974 X 17
Bio (click to expand) picture Linda Petersen is the managing editor of The Valley Journals, a group of 15 free, total market coverage, monthly community papers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah.

She is president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, a citizen coalition that works to educate and advocate for open government.

A past president of the Utah Headliners pro chapter, she is currently the chapter’s FOI officer and treasurer.

For her open government advocacy, she has received the Utah Press Association John E. Jones Award, the Utah Headliners Clifford P. Cheney Service to Journalism Award and the Howard S. Dubin Outstanding Pro Chapter Member Award.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Media
Oklahoma State University
206 Paul Miller
Stillwater, OK 74078-4053
Bio (click to expand) picture Joey Senat, an associate journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, writes a blog,, for FOI Oklahoma Inc., a nonprofit representing a statewide coalition of open government advocates.

His model letter for requesting public records in Oklahoma is widely used. He also wrote a citizens guide to the state’s open records and meeting laws.

Senat has spoken on FOI, First Amendment and journalism education issues at dozens of professional and academic conferences, including the AEJMC National Conference, IRE National Conference, IRE Better Watchdog Workshops and SPJ Region 8 conferences. In summer 2012, he conducted open records training sessions across the Midwest for SPJ.

For his work to advance government transparency, Senat received the 2007 Marian Opala First Amendment Award and the 2005 Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment.

Senat has been published in Quill and the IRE Journal. He reported for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., and the Tulsa (Okla.) World. He earned academic degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Memphis State University and LSU.

Lynn Walsh
Investigative Executive Producer
Bio (click to expand) picture Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has been working in investigative journalism at the national level as well as locally in California, Ohio, Texas and Florida. Currently she leads the KNSD investigative team at the NBC TV station in San Diego, California, where she is the Investigative Executive Producer.

Most recently, she was working as data producer and investigative reporter for the E.W. Scripps National Desk producing stories for the 30+ Scripps news organizations across the country. Before moving to the national desk, she worked as the Investigative Producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5, the Scripps owned TV station in West Palm Beach, Florida. She has won state and local awards as well as multiple Emmy’s for her stories. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information.

Her passion lies in telling multimedia stories that deliver hard hitting facts across multiple platforms. She describes herself as a "data-viz nerd" who is obsessed with new online tools to share information on the web and mobile applications.

She is a contributor to the Radio Television Digital News Association blog and serves as Secretary-Treasurer for SPJ and is a member of SPJ’s FOI, Generation J and Ethics committees.

Lynn is always interested in new projects surrounding FOI, public information access, mobile reporting tools, social media and interactive journalism. She is a proud Bobcat Alumna and graduated from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

Home > Freedom of Information > FOI Toolkit

Freedom of Information
FOI Toolkit

Welcome to SPJ's FOI Audit resources. FOI Audits are a great way to monitor FOI compliance, build a group of journalists who have come up close and personal with FOI laws and demonstrate, once and for all, the weaknesses in state FOI laws.

We've compiled everything you need to get started: training, do's and don'ts, document ideas for your requests and lots more.

Introduction to Audits | Why an Audit? Why Now? | How Do I Get Started? | Creating the Questionaire | How Important is Training? | Notekeeping | Audit Headquarters | A Few Final Tips | Fostering Change with Audits | Resources/Contacts | Forms | Download a PDF copy of the Toolkit

Get information on each state's audit materials and procedures

Introduction to Audits

So you want to conduct a freedom of information audit. Welcome! FOI audits are a great way to monitor FOI compliance, build a group of journalists who have come up close and personal with FOI laws and demonstrate, once and for all, the weaknesses in your state's laws.

Perhaps you are an editor at a large urban daily, a reporter at a rural weekly or neither – perhaps you are a journalism student or professor. It doesn't matter: the good news is that anyone can test a community's transparency, and this toolkit will help you get started.

We've compiled everything you need to get started: training, do's and don'ts, document ideas for your requests and lots more. We've even included a worksheet to help you organize your audit once you get started and created a list of resources for you. If you get stuck at any point in the process, call or e-mail us, and we'll be glad to help.

So, let's get started.


Why an Audit? Why Now?

Because somewhere in your community – right now – a citizen is being denied access to public records. For that citizen, the denial represents what might very well be the first and only time that parent, or homeowner, or environmental activist, has requested information from their government.

And what happened? A stern clerk, who may or may not have known better, told them no.

Remember: this citizen is not a reporter. They don't get evaluated back home based on how hard they fought for the information. In fact, human nature being what it is, they probably decided that it's not worth a fight, sighed deeply and left, their cynicism in government confirmed.

That is why we conduct FOI audits.

There are other reasons as well. When we contact elected officials and describe difficulties with FOI laws, they find it hard to believe that things can be so bad out there. FOI audits provide evidence of the gap between official government proclamation and actual practice, between what the public records laws say and what they actually do for us citizens.

In 2000, the Maryland-D.C. Press Association sponsored an audit that sought some of the most routine records open to the public, including school violence reports and police logs, and yet found that people seeking such records have about a one-in-four chance of immediate compliance. Half the time, they get nothing, according to the audit's findings.

The state auditor of Missouri conducted an audit in 1999, which found abysmal compliance with state FOI laws. The audit received widespread publicity, and agencies vowed to change their ways. Less than two years later, the state auditor conducted the same audit – and again found that less than half of all requests were honored.

In Illinois, a 1999 audit found that nearly two-thirds of the time, people requesting public documents from local offices left empty-handed. More than a quarter of all requests for public records were never honored never – even after officials were given extra time to seek legal advice or compile the records. One county sheriff, when asked to provide a copy of the county jail's log, wadded up a copy of the state's freedom of information law and told the reporter, "I don't have to tell you nothing."

You can't make that kind of anecdote up yourself – it's the stuff of great reporting, and it's the catalyst for reform of weak FOI laws.

In 1999, a group of New Jersey's Gannett newspapers sent reporters to 14 of New Jersey's 21 counties to monitor compliance with state law. Eventually, the reporters asked questions of 601 state and local agencies. In a state where the only existing FOI law was considered outdated, vague and difficult to enforce, the reporters found that officials routinely refused access to records. The final result was that half of all legitimate public records requests were denied.

Paul D'Ambrosio, investigations editor of the Asbury Park Press, said that the audit demonstrated what everyone in journalism in New Jersey knew was true: access in New Jersey was difficult at best, impossible at worst.

"The audit was a huge part of the equation," he said. "It played a major role in creating the environment for legislative change."

The audit focused attention on New Jersey's outdated, inefficient sunshine law. In 2002, New Jersey enacted a newly revised sunshine law, many of its improvements directly inspired by the audit.

"Independent public record audits by two of the state's larger dailies, The Asbury Park Press and The Record, were the key to making the public conscious of the state's outmoded and restrictive open records law," said Guy T. Baehr, founding director of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, longtime SPJ member and now the associate director of the Journalism Resources Institute at the School of Communication, Information & Library Studies at Rutgers University. "Although it took a couple more years of work by open government advocates, I don't think our push for a new open records law would have been successful without those audits and the initial attention they focused on the issue."


How Do I Get Started?

First, understand that an audit – be it state, city or even campus – is a massive, time-consuming job that demands a high level of organization, coordination and planning.

The first step is to identify your alliance and build the network. FOI audits have been conducted with groups of journalists from daily and weekly newspapers, Associated Press bureaus, college students and even good, old-fashioned citizens.

Audit veterans agree that the alliance you build is only as strong as its middle: someone has to take command, delegate tasks and pull the audit together. Again, that role has changed from audit to audit across the country, but most audits have been anchored by either a single newspaper or AP bureau.

"It's really important that everyone knows who, ultimately, to call with questions, and to know that someone will absolutely get back in touch with them, almost in real time,' said Steve Elliott of The Associated Press, who helped coordinate Arizona's 2002 audit. "Lots of people can pitch in and help, but at the end of the day, there has to be a leader somewhere."

With a headquarters site and an audit leader or two identified, the next step is to assess the FOI landscape: what should the audit accomplish? Are you attempting to demonstrate across-the-board weaknesses in the law, highlight the worst problems or shine the light on particularly egregious agencies?

Remember: you must be scrupulously honest and fair, lest you open your news organization up to charges of ambush journalism.

In fact, from the very beginning, expect your results to be challenged and your motives questioned. Audits embarrass some people but probably anger more. Count on someone challenging your methodology or results. Defend yourself by organizing everything, keeping meticulous notes and putting lots of thought into the next critical steps in the process: developing the audit and training the auditors.

Choose your auditors carefully. Some states have struggled with auditors who went through the motions routinely and incompletely. In some cases HQ has had to send them back; in at least one case an audit had to reject the results in our final report.

Remember: It Doesn't Have To Be Statewide!
Yes, lots of FOI audits cover an entire state, but that in no way means that there is only one approach. There have been community FOI audits, city- wide FOI audits, and audits of individual state agencies. The Student Press Law Center in Washington conducted an audit focused on a single issue: whether college campus officials made public the outcome of disciplinary proceedings when a student is found responsible for behavior that would constitute a violent crime or a non-forcible sex offense, as federal law allows thanks largely to the work of the SPLC.

The SPLC wrote to a public and private university in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia to request a copy of those specific records for offenses that took place between Aug. 15 and Dec. 31, 2002. The SPLC survey asked the schools to disclose all information allowed by FERPA, including the name of the alleged perpetrator, the violation committed and the resulting sanctions. A university also may disclose the names of the victim and any witnesses involved if they give consent.

Of the 102 schools surveyed, 59 sent some form of response, 46 public and 13 private. Of the 59, 17 schools provided at least some of the information requested, while 26 provided none of the information. Of the 16 schools remaining, eight claimed no such offenses had occurred, eight claimed they needed more time to respond. No private schools released any of the requested information.

A single subject – and an audit that tested compliance from sea to shining sea.

Another audit, this one conducted by Holly Hacker, then a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, now a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, employed a lone reporter (Hacker).

How? It was an electronic audit. Hacker e-mailed a sampling of municipal offices across the state, seeking a variety of electronic records. The idea was to demonstrate how uneven access to electronic data is across Missouri.

Her lead:

"Want an electronic copy of a city budget? A database of property records? A spreadsheet of gun-permit holders?

Good luck in Missouri, where most local governments cannot or will not provide public records electronically, based on an investigation conducted for the Tribune."

There are an infinite variety of audits that can be conducted by anyone, from the largest newsgathering institutions to a single journalism student.


Creating the Questionaire

The next critical stage of the audit is the questionnaire itself. Audit veterans are routinely quick to mention the importance of getting the questionnaire right.

Turn to the experts: ask a media attorney, or the state press association, or the Freedom of Information Center for suggestions on documents to request. And make sure they are ABSOLUTELY public records before including them on the questionnaire.

The easiest way to do that is to stick with the basics. Ask for documents that reflect basic democratic governance.

Who's locked up in jail? Who's spending what money? Ask for documents that your readers clearly understand should be public – an FOI audit is not the place to foster a debate over whether or not a document should be open. Instead, it should be a fair test of the state's law. Set the bar too high, and you make confused records custodians look foolish in the newspaper. You really can't set the bar too low, as we've found that no matter how basic the request, officials still routinely deny access.

Look at Georgia's 1999 audit. They asked for the most basic, gut-level documents, and response was predictably under-whelming:

Police incident reports: 62% compliance Sheriff's incident reports: 50% compliance City council minutes: 93% compliance County commission minutes: 89% compliance School superintendent's contract: 49% compliance University crime log: 86% compliance

In Montana, the story was much the same. The AP there selected seven documents:

— Incident reports or initial offense reports for the last 24 hours, from sheriff's offices. State law clearly indicated that initial incident reports were public records.

— Jail rosters, for counties with a jail, or lists of prisoners being held in whatever facility holds them.

— The salary of the superintendent of the largest school district in the county seat.

— Property taxes paid by the chairman of the county board of commissioners, from county treasurer offices.

— Minutes of the last meeting of the city or town council.

— The dockets listing civil and criminal lawsuits in the offices of the Clerk of the District Court.

— One file, of either a civil or criminal lawsuit, chosen by the auditor.

Note the mix here: law enforcement, before, during and after the case, city and county government, and the judiciary.

"Don't look for obscure documents that only the newspaper would be interested in. Think of documents that John Q. Public might request," said Tom Bennett, an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has been involved in both of Georgia's audits.

Bennett compiled a useful list of records asked by various audits:

Amount spent on lawyers
Athletic director's salary
Building permits
Campus crime log
City agenda
City budget
City council minutes
City expenses
City finance officer's salary
Coach's contract
County administrator's latest travel voucher
County commission minutes
Comm. chairman's property tax assessment
County expenses
County judge's campaign contribution report
County per diem payments
Gun records
Jail log
911 emergency system records
Nursing home reports
Police brutality reports
Police incident and offense reports
Police radio logs
Principal's salary
Property tax records
Pupil expulsion records
Race and gender breakdown of university faculty
Restaurant inspections
School district budget
Sheriff expense reports
Sheriff incident and offense reports
Sheriff reports of deaths in custody
School superintendent's contract
School superintendent's latest evaluation
School test scores
State senators' driving records


How Important is Training?

Are you kidding?!?! Read FOI audits, and it's easy to see that training of auditors is the single most important element in conducting an FOI audit. Train them poorly, fail to anticipate hurdles and challenges in the field, and you'll get imperfect data, incomplete responses, or worse yet, stuff you simply can not use in the reporting.

"You simply can not train the auditors well enough," said John Kuglin, Montana AP bureau chief. "We developed protocols, followed up with more training, and still you get incomplete audit questionnaires, breakdowns in instructions and incomplete notes."

Several overall themes emerge when discussing training with audit veterans. The first, mentioned by everyone, is the need to formally train, rather than just mention a few things to the auditors and call it a day.

The second oft-repeated tip: create a form. Auditors in Montana were asked to fill out a one-page form on each of their stops.

Detail, detail, detail: Montana's training protocol instructs auditors to "ask to see each of these records and ask for photocopies of each record (or at least representative pages in multi-page records such as incident reports, council minutes and case files)." It seems obvious, but when the goal is good, usable audit data, nothing is obvious.

Uniformity from county to county, city to city and office to office is central to the success of the audit.

Some tips:

— Before you enter the audit location, note the date, time and location. Have your notebooks ready in the car, but don't take it with you and produce it during the request – keep notes in your head and record what happened upon leaving. It's an audit, remember?

— Dress professionally, like you do for work. No major deviation one way or the other.

— Be polite, be diligent, and be persistent. DO NOT be belligerent, sarcastic, overbearing or angry. You are playing the role of citizen requester, so act like one.

— Remember, at all times, that the goal is a FAIR assessment of compliance with the public records law. If you walk in to a government office two minutes before it closes, or in the dead of the lunch hour, and no one rushes to help you or fails to comply, what did you expect?

— That said, don't be a dead giveaway: no insignia of the newspaper or organization on your clothing, no press pass in your windshield, no reporter's notebook in your back pocket! Keep the field report forms in the car. In several states, clerks tipped off to an FOI audit have passed word to the next county, corrupting the results.

OK, time to walk in the office....

Identify or Don't Identify: That is the Question
Most public records laws do not require you to identify yourself by name, or occupation, nor do they allow records custodians to ask for identification or seek the purpose or reason for your request.

Audit veterans have wrestled with the level of anonymity and have taken a variety of approaches, but the dominant approach can be summed up as follows:

STEP 1. If asked for identity or purpose, answer "Do you have to know that before you can help me?"

STEP 2. If the answer to that query is YES, then answer: "I don't believe that is required by the FOI law."

STEP 3. Then step back and mentally record everything that happens from that moment on.

STEP 4. If the official will not relent, and continues to demand identification or purpose, NEVER, EVER LIE.

STEP 5. If asked where you work, answer by returning to STEP 1: "Do you have to know that before you can help me?" (Again, make sure you are noting all of this...)

STEP 6. If the custodian insists, then tell them precisely where you work. Don't be coy – tell them at this point that you work for XXX and if asked why you want the records, tell them that you are working on a story. (Don't tell them that you are working on an FOI AUDIT!)

Other Responses

— If clerks give you the old "that person isn't here right now" response: ask whether certain people need to be in the office in order for you to release public information. Remember to note this response when you get back to the car. Then set a time to come back, and follow up.

— If you get the "we're swamped, come back later" response: again, set a time, record the fact that your request was delayed, then come back at the appointed hour and try, try again.

— Don't play shade tree lawyer and start spouting off about the law. You are a citizen, remember? You can say, "I'm pretty sure that the law says that this is a public record."

And Finally, More Training Tips

— If you have to fill out a form, provide only your name, home address and home phone number.

— You should be able to get a record within two business days, or within the statutory minimum in your state. If the officials say they earnestly cannot get the record for you today, ask them what time you can return. A record is deemed "denied" if officials can't produce it within two days.

— Study the survey sheet ahead of time so you are familiar with the categories. You can write the questions down on your scrap paper or pocket notebook so you can refer to it while in the office.

— Ask for names and titles. If they resist, note that in the survey.

— Make sure that your editors and auditors have all decided what is considered compliant and non-compliant.



An FOI audit presents some interesting journalistic logistics. The auditor is essentially conducting an interview with one or more public officials without the benefit of a notebook, so using forms and impressing detail upon the trainees becomes essential. Tell your auditors that they should first record names and direct quotes, as soon as they have left the office. Then have them record anecdotes, results and general impressions of the experience.

Keep copies! Field reports, the public records received, and your notes – all should be copied before submission to Audit HQ. This is critical, as you might receive a document you think complies with the law, only to find out later that it was not what you asked for, but a dumbed-down equivalent. In some states, cornered public officials have just flat-out said that the auditor was never in the office! Records can refute such lies.


Audit Headquarters

Having established a headquarters location, disseminate phone numbers (cell and land lines) and make sure your auditors have someone they contact immediately at every minute of the workday. Have a lawyer on call as well, in case there are problems. And remind your auditors: if the sheriff comes out and threatens you with arrest for making an FOI request: take good notes!


A Few Final Tips

Here are a few ideas gleaned from reading the audits out there. Use them or not – but they're all interesting ideas!

— Ask your auditors to keep track of their round-trip mileage, so you can create an overall number for your audit. This is particularly effective in large western states...."Auditors drove 10,000 miles to test the state of Nevada's FOI law!"

— Think – hard – about visiting all agencies on the same day. It helps maintain the element of surprise.

— Make sure that you have worked out story play and exclusives. This is particularly important in multi-paper alliances. What happens if something extraordinary is discovered? Does everyone run the same content on the same day? Do you run the first installment on Sunday for maximum impact? These questions should be worked through in advance.

— Make sure the reporters aren't assigned to offices they normally cover and that they use their home addresses and phone numbers of where to send material. One state's audit was tripped up when public officials recognized the reporter!

— Be extremely transparent about your methodology. Many audits have a "nerd box" explaining how the series was conducted, the standards for compliance versus non-compliance, and other judgment calls. Your readers and viewers should be able to clearly see how such judgment calls were made.

— Put everything you can on the web – even field notes! You'll end up with far more material than you could ever get into the newspaper or on air, so use the power of technology to expand the news hole.


Fostering Change with Audits

Any FOI audit should leave in its wake discussion about freedom of information and how local laws serve citizens. This alone is a positive thing, but often the audit was conceived of frustration with the status quo it was created to bring change, legislative or practical change – in the way that the law is working on the local, clerk-to-records seeker level.

To ensure that your audit has maximum impact, coordinate with editorial page editors in your community (and of course at your own news organization) to alert everyone of what's coming. Do not assume that everyone in the journalism community knows that you are conducting an audit, or even what an FOI audit is, for that matter.

After the series begins, coordinate coverage with meeting with elected officials, state attorneys generals. The governor, legislative staff friendly to FOI, and anyone else you can think of that needs to be informed on the issue. Again, do not assume that those who you most need to reach are reading the audit daily. Pull reprints together and mail copies to all political leaders in your state, along with a cover letter from an editor, or better yet, the governor.

Editorialize – every day the audit runs. Then set benchmarks for further editorials: three months, six months and a year later – and gauge progress toward the reforms suggested by the audit. Don't let it rest! You'll only get results from your audit if you work on the back end as hard as you've worked on the front end.



For information about almost every FOI audit ever conducted, visit

Mine them for tips, document ideas, sidebar inspiration and most importantly, for methodology. The journalists across America who have conducted audits all generously contributed their wisdom to this project, and most, if not all, appear within these Web pages. Call them – e-mail them – they respond every time and are incredibly helpful.

The Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism – which prepared this toolkit – has agreed to serve SPJ as a resource for anyone in the country thinking about conducting an audit. Call us – we'll be glad to help.

Charles N. Davis Executive Director, Freedom of Information Center University of Missouri School of Journalism (573) 882-5736



FOI Forms are available in the PDF version of the FOI Toolkit, which can be downloaded by clicking here.


For more information about FOI Audits, contact Charles Davis, SPJ FOI Committee chairman, at 573/ 882-5736 or via e-mail.

Stay in Touch
Twitter Storify Facebook Google Plus RSS Pinterest Pinterest
Flickr LinkedIn Tout

Your Right to Know
Find FOI in your state

Get in touch with the Sunshine chair or chairs in your state and find FOI Centers, quotable sources, resources and more by using the menu below.

Freedom of Information
Covering Prisons
Project Sunshine: Find FOI Help
Accessing Government Records
Shield Law Campaign
FOI Audit Tookit | PDF
Anti-SLAPP: Protect Free Speech
Official Secrets Act bill
FOI Groups
Annual FOI Reports
FOI Committee Roster

FOI FYI: SPJ’s FOI Committee Blog
Obama White House Doesnt Address Complaints on Its Censorship through PIOs, etc.
DOJ Should Improve Requirements For How Death In Police Custody Data Is Collected
SPJ past president testifies to Senate: More FOIA work needed

FOI Committee
This committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public's access to documents and the government's business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.

Copyright © 1996-2016 Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved.

Legal | Policies

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center
3909 N. Meridian St.
Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789

Contact SPJ Headquarters
Employment Opportunities
Advertise with SPJ