Getting started with public records — and MuckRock

Filing your first public records request, whether to the National Security Agency or to your local library, can be daunting: What will actually get your question answered? What does the law say? What if the agency rejects your request?

MuckRock is here to help.

First, decide what kind of question your trying to get answered, and figure out which level of government is likely to have data on that question.

One of the keys to a good public records request is remembering that you’re not asking a question — your asking for documents that answer a question. So instead of asking how many dogs live in your city, ask for the dog license registry.

Almost everything the government does creates some paper trail, whether that’s a log, a report, a presentation before a big project, lessons learned after a natural disaster, or even a copy of an agency’s Intranet page.

Who was likely to have met about the information you’re interested in? How do you know the documents you’re interested in exist?

Sometimes including a link to a news article or press release about the documents can help the agency find what you’re request.

But the important thing is to file something: 100 percent of requests that aren’t filed get nothing back. In fact, very successful requesters, like Jason Leopold, file a dozen or more requests a week. Not all of them will be successful, but filing a number of requests today increases the chances that interesting material will come back to you for weeks and months to come.

Follow the pros

MuckRock regularly interviews FOIA experts for their advice on what they’ve learned. Here’s some of our favorite tips, plus links to the full interviews.

It is incredibly important to be as specific as possible with your request: what kind of documents you are looking for, when these documents were created and/or updated, which department is likely to hold the documents you are after, and so on. A broad request asking for all documents “pertaining to” a topic is more likely to be refused than a more specific request.
Runa Sandvik
If you have a “sensitive” FOIA request or are getting jerked around, request the processing notes for it to see what the agency is saying about it.

Always appeal if you get rejected.

Know as much of the laws and court precedents as you can.
C.J. Ciaramella
FOIA requesters must know everything there is to know about the subject matter for which they are seeking responsive records. I would also advise first time requesters to read FOIA logs and file FOIAs for administrative case files.
Jason Leopold

Better know your local laws

MuckRock has an ongoing series looking at state public records laws. Learn more about public records in:

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also has an excellent state-by-state guide on public records, including details on exemptions, fee waiver provisions and more.

Ask the experts

MuckRock also offers a free question-and-answer space to throw out your trickiest public records problems, where some of the best filers on the planet come to offer their advice and insight. Join us on Slack.