Jessica Huseman of ProPublica joined us last Friday for our Friday FOIA chat on MuckRock’s Slack channel. Here’s a few tips she’s gleaned from massive investigations built off of public records requests filed all over the country.
A journey of a 1000 public records requests …
When undertaking large projects that require dozens or hundreds of public information requests, Huseman reduces the chances of needing to amend requests by sending “trial balloon requests,” to gauge responses from agencies.
Getting around in-state exemptions
When Huseman is filing FOIAs in states that require residency, she files them through MuckRock, which has volunteers in the state who file the requests.
A popular phrase she often uses with public information officers that need to be convinced to release information goes something along the lines of: “You can process this request, or I will send the exact same request through a local journalist who will just give it to me anyway. Let’s save us both some time,” she said.
The times, they are(n’t) a-changin’
As journalism is changing, some local agencies are having issues making logical adaptations.
When Huseman had to FOIA every county in Virginia, she ran into some counties that refused to give her information because ProPublica is neither a broadcast, print, or televised news medium.
“Honestly it was mind boggling,” she said. “…The most obviously outdated law, and it’s clear what the spirit of it is, but FOIL officers don’t necessarily care.”
She was able to file the requests by sending readership statistics or filing through state residents.
Following-through on follow-ups
If you don’t love bullet journaling like Huseman and are looking for a new way on keeping tabs on follow-ups with agencies, Huseman recommends using the Gmail app Boomerang, which will send you pre-set reminders. It can also send you read receipts.
Results may vary
And as always, the information received varies by state. When Huseman filed requests on cause of death for children, the records she received varied from entire files, to one-sentence summaries. One state keeps their child death information in one large Word document, constantly pasting the summaries into the same file, which dates back to 1987. If Huseman does not have the name of the child, there is no manner of getting the information because the record keeper finds files using the Ctrl+F function.
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Image via Wikimedia Commons