Staying organized key to using FOIA for investigative stories

By Mari Devereaux

In journalism, finding even the smallest bit of information can lead to an investigative project that requires hundreds of files and dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. 

That was the consensus Saturday as several investigative reporters discussed how to use and keep track of FOIA requests for “long haul” stories that can take months or even years to complete.

Greg Pratt, a city hall reporter at the Chicago Tribune, said the first step in undertaking any story of this type is being proactive about finding the information, training government officials to be responsive to FOIA requests and nagging people repeatedly when they are not.

“You have to be asking for things, and you need to be challenging things,” Pratt said.

Lauren FitzPatrick, an investigative reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, said whenever she is beginning a long-form story, she makes a master list of the specific information she needs, where that information will come from, what knowledge she already has and what she will do next.

FitzPatrick said common FOIA requests she makes are for individuals’ contact information, the names of major industry or company players, personal calendars and ethics filings.

Cecilia Reyes, an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune, said sometimes she interviews sources just to get an idea of what paperwork they are generating on a daily basis that could be requested under FOIA.

Whether one is covering politics, health or another topic, FitzPatrick said they should file several FOIAs every week and hoard records to get a good sense of what is normal so they can tell the second something goes wrong.

“You don’t have to be a full-time investigator to do these kinds of stories,” FitzPatrick said. “You just have to stay organized.”

Madison Hopkins, an investigative reporter at the Better Government Association, said her organizational system consists of a spreadsheet with each FOIA request’s identification number, agency contacted, request date and specific request made, as well as the status of the request and its final due date, so no files get lost amid all the projects she is working on.

Reyes said she recommends establishing a relationship with FOIA officers and reminding them how many times they have been contacted about a certain request to help speed up the process.

For reporters who are stuck on a story, FitzPatrick said to call an adviser, tipster or expert for advice. Reporters also can narrow their FOIA request, making it more specific. They also should  contact an agency’s department head if deadlines to produce documents are missed, she said.

“Don’t forget why you want to do the story when you can’t get your hands on anything and everybody is pretending COVID is the reason they won’t give you the records,” FitzPatrick said. “You probably have deeper reasons for why the story is important to you.”