We’re encouraging and pleading with anyone who uses FOIA to tell a story to say so — give FOIA some credit. The ask is straightforward: If FOIA was helpful to tell part of your story, then please say so in the story.
Some journalists fear that reporting on how the reporter succeeded or failed in getting the story would bore readers, and that includes mentioning the challenges using the Freedom of Information act in reporting.
There’s an unintended consequence. The government too often gets a pass from public scrutiny when agencies fail to fulfill requests in a timely manner, charge exorbitant fees solely to avoid an unpleasant truth, or abuse their discretion to determine what should be disclosed or withheld.
When veterans wait for benefit claims, kids buy lunch boxes containing lead, troops receive armor vests that failed ballistics tests, or firefighters rely on safety equipment that falters when exposed to heat or moisture, the Freedom of Information Act has helped reporters and others get the story out.
More selfishly, those of us who try to explain FOIA’s value and relevance cannot show FOIA’s impact if we cannot find the stories that relied on FOIA.
We encourage anyone to re-think the notion that FOIA is inside baseball. The public deserves to know when agencies are playing games, truly delaying requests, or simply not responding.
Some reporters take to Twitter to get this part of the story out, or simply to vent frustrations. Follow them. Include a sidebar to the story when you think agencies are antagonistically applying FOIA in responding to your reporting. And simply mention FOIA when your story reporting used FOIA.
Ten years ago, advocates for transparency had a hard time giving examples of FOIA’s impact. We’ve used the last decade to compile an online, searchable database (The FOIA Files) that includes over 700 stories that relied in some way on the federal FOIA.
We continually need to refresh in people’s minds the importance of FOIA. So when FOIA’s in your story, make FOIA part of your story.