Online Tool Helps Reporters Navigate FOIA Without an Attorney
Reporters who submit open records requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) do not necessarily need an attorney to file an appeal with an agency that rejects the journalist’s application.
iFoia.org is a free, easy-to-use online resource that helps reporters create FOIA requests and deliver it to the right agency. It manages and tracks all communications the reporter initiates with agencies.
Journalists then can set reminders for follow-ups, share projects with newsroom colleagues, and appeal adverse decisions.
The website may prove particularly useful amid news that the government is increasingly censoring, denying access, or failing to turn over public documents. According to the AP’s most recent annual review, government searchers turned up empty-handed in more than one in six FOIA cases – apparently because they couldn’t find files.
“State what you’re willing to pay [for the information],” said Katie Townsend, litigation director at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — one of more than a dozen presenters who spoke to about 100 journalists at the Media Law Resource Center’s “Media Law for Journalists: A Workshop and Roundtable” at The New York Times building Tuesday. (Yours truly was among the audience members.)
“Ask the agency to contact you if the fees exceed that amount,” Townsend advised, reminding journalists that FOIA requests must be in writing and reasonably describe the records sought.
Agencies may charge fees, she said, but as a “representative of the media,” reporters may qualify for reductions and waivers.
So often, journalists ask agencies to create records, but Townsend clarified that FOIA requests return only documents that “already exist” on the record. It generally takes about twenty-days for an agency to make a determination on a FOIA request. In some circumstances, a journalist may request expedited processing, which cuts that window of time in half.
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Wes Benter is a senior online community services specialist at ProfNet, a service that connects journalists with expert sources. He previously worked as a creative producer for PR Newswire’s MultiVu. Prior to that, Wes worked on-air as a reporter and weather anchor for network affiliates in the Midwest. Learn more by following him on Twitter @WBenter.