Investigative Stories and FOIA: How To Pitch and Keep Organized

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FOIA Fest takes place virtually Feb. 24-26

By Lu Calzada

Working to uncover important stories can be overwhelming for any reporter, to say nothing of having to organize documents and work with editors who may not see the story’s vision. 

One of the best ways to overcome this obstacle, according to journalists on a panel at FOIAFest 2021, is to not let the pitch get ahead of the information gathering process. 

The Saturday afternoon panel, “Organizing Your FOIAs and Pitching the Investigative Story,” featured journalists Lakeidra Chavis and Corey Johnson, as well as moderator Alejandra Cancino, an investigative reporter for the Better Government Association.

Chavis, who collaborated on an award-winning 2019 series called “The Quiet Rooms” while working at ProPublica Illinois, said she built spreadsheets to keep all her documents organized as she investigated reports of students being put in isolation or under physical restraint in public schools. 

“We had to figure out how to track the FOIAs we would eventually file for this investigation and also coordinate [the] database,” said Chavis, now a reporter for The Trace, focusing on gun violence.

When working on how to collect information for another story she did on the suicide trends of Black Chicagoans, Chavis said she considered how the deaths might be documented and from which possible avenues she could get data.

She added that it’s important to look into a lot of different types of information – recent or historical – in order to craft a good pitch.

Johnson, an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, honed his skills for making pitches while working on a story about female prison inmates being sterilized without consent. He said it’s imperative to consider what documents could help answer big picture questions such as “Why is this happening?” and “In how many situations is this happening?”. 

Preparing as much reporting and gathering as much data as you can before presenting to an editor can make all the difference, he said. “I didn’t pitch [the sterilization story] to my editor until I had some data in hand.”

In Johnson’s investigation of lead contamination in the Hillsborough (Fla.) School District, he even went as far as to consider testing the contamination levels for himself.

“I see data not as a god in and of itself, but in service to the story,” Johnson said. “I wanted the data to be functional.”