Using FOIA logs to develop news stories

Yilun Cheng at MuckRock: “In the fiscal year 2020, federal agencies received a total of 790,772 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. There are also tens of thousands of state and local agencies taking in and processing public record requests on a daily basis. Since most agencies keep a log of requests received, FOIA-minded reporters can find interesting story ideas by asking for and digging through the history of what other people are looking to obtain.

Some FOIA logs are posted on the websites of agencies that proactively release these records. Those that are not can be obtained through a FOIA request. There are a number of online resources that collect and store these documents, including MuckRockthe Black VaultGovernment Attic and FOIA Land.

Sorting through a FOIA log can be challenging since format differs from agency to agency. A more well-maintained log might include comprehensive information on the names of the requesters, the records being asked for, the dates of the requests’ receipt and the agency’s responses, as shown, for example, in a log released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency.

But other departments –– the Cook County Department of Public Health, for instance –– might only send over a three-column spreadsheet with no descriptions of the nature of the requests.

As a result, learning how to negotiate with agencies and interpreting the content in their FOIA logs are crucial for journalists trying to understand the public record landscape. While some reporters only use FOIA logs to keep tabs on their competitors’ reporting interests, the potential of these documents goes far beyond this. Below are some tips for getting story inspiration from FOIA logs….(More)”.