2024 FOIA Fest Tip Sheet

Recommendations and resources for before, during, and after filing a FOIA request

FOIA Fest is the Chicago Headline Club’s signature event dedicated to public records reporting, and is held annually in recognition of Freedom of Information Day.

Freedom of Information Day promotes the public’s right to know and access to information. It’s usually recognized on or around March 16, James Madison’s birthday. Madison was an advocate for openness and transparency in government. 

A full day of FOIA info may be a little overwhelming. So our guest speakers help us put together this handy tip sheet to help you when thinking about how to use FOIA, best practices for filing your request, and what to do when you don’t get the response you’re looking for.

Building Relationships

Read a lot and talk to the elders and anyone else doing the work

Gregory Royal Pratt • Investigative reporter • Chicago Tribune

Keep a database of your FOIA contacts at different agencies, their information and what stories you’ve worked with them on. You’re building a reputation with them and, while it shouldn’t, it will affect how they respond to your requests in the future. Keeping that information on hand will help you out a lot.

Sidnee King • Equity Reporter • Illinois Answers Project

I’d encourage people to reach out to other reporters, either with questions about how to craft a FOIA for a story they are interested in or to ask reporters about FOIAs they have filed. This would help build a relationship between reporters, too.

Kristen Schorsch • Reporter • WBEZ / Chicago Public Media 

Find seasoned reporters who are experienced using filing FOIA requests with the departments you’re hoping to use public records from. I learned so much from investigative reporters within and beyond my organization. Even if we weren’t working on the same beats or types of stories, I was always pleasantly surprised by how willing they were to share advice.

Maggie Sivit • Digital and Engagement Producer • WBEZ / Chicago Public Media

I think two things can help re FOIA. Network with other journalists who have experience with FOIA, and also get into the habit of filing requests yourself. You might be able to find some templates to use to help draft requests, be it local, state or federal. FOIA can help with reporting and holding those in power to account. FOIA can be intimidating at times, don’t let it be.

Alex Veeneman • Freelance journalist

Before You File

Government agencies are byzantine and opaque by design. FOIA is a lightsaber that requires mastery to neatly slice through all that red tape.

David Weissman • Instructor of Media Studies • North Central College 

Stop and take time to file that FOIA … but make sure you do some research prior to filing. First, make sure that the information you are asking for isn’t already posted on their website, that it is information that should be available and try to find out how they keep the information. The more specific you can be, the more likely the FOIA will get a response.

Sarah Karp • Education reporter • WBEZ / Chicago Public Media

Always keep your ears perked for clues that a government is keeping some piece of information. It’s a great way to get records that maybe you hadn’t thought of before. For example, if an official at a press conference says that they have begun to track something, file a FOIA for that tracker. 

Reema Amin • Reporter • Chalkbeat Chicago

Think of the questions you have about an agency, find out if there is data collected on it and then dig in. Don’t be afraid to start narrow and then broaden out. This decreases the chances of them denying your request as “overly burdensome.” 

Another way to get around waiting weeks only to find out that they consider your request  “overly burdensome” is to file from the outset using words to this effect, “please provide all data possible up until the point that it becomes overly burdensome.” It totally worked for me. 

Monica Eng • Reporter • Axios

Always read the record retention schedules! They are basically a menu of the records you can get from the agencies you cover.

Adam Rhodes • Training Director • Investigative Reporters and Editors

Before diving into FOIA requests, it’s crucial to have a thorough understanding of the FOIA process, including what can be requested, how to submit a request, and the potential exemptions that agencies might cite to withhold information. 

The U.S. Department of Justice’s FOIA website is a great starting point for understanding these basics. One of the best ways to sharpen investigative skills is to study the work of successful investigative journalists. Analyzing how they construct their narratives, use data, and incorporate information obtained through FOIA requests can provide insights and inspiration.

Building FOIA into day-to-day work and sharpening investigative skills is a continuous process. It requires dedication, curiosity, and a commitment to uncovering the truth. By utilizing these resources and strategies, journalists can significantly enhance their investigative reporting and contribute to the vital role of journalism in society.

Rashanah Baldwin • Senior Advisor, Avoq • Founder, Baldwin Media Group

Be aware of the FOIA law in Illinois — especially that part about how the public bodies will have to pay your legal fees when you win

Matt Topic and his FOIA Team at Loevy and Loevy have won many victories on behalf of me and other reporters at WBEZ, the Sun-Times and many other news organizations in Chicago and across the U.S.

We are lucky to have arguably the best FOIA lawyers in the country based right here in Fulton Market. They always take the time to explain their approach in each case to our newsroom leadership and in-house counsel, who have been highly supportive of our efforts to win the release of public records across Illinois.

Dan Mihalopoulos • Investigative Reporter • WBEZ / Chicago Public Media 

Filing Best Practices

It isn’t just for hard news. 

Patty Lamberti • Program Director Multimedia Journalism • Loyola University Chicago

Practice filing FOIAs on a regular basis. Feed your curiosity. File often for things like email logs, government invoices and police reports. By doing this often you can work out the kinks that may be specific to the FOIA office you are working with. Also, never be scared to call the FOIA officer, they are people too. 

Melody Mercado • Reporter • Block Club Chicago

My best advice is to get into a routine of filing FOIAs at least once a month so that you are always digging into new documents and analyzing any data that other people may be overlooking.

Rita Oceguera • The Trace • Chicago Reporter

When drafting a FOIA request, put yourself in the shoes of a FOIA officer. Is the request reasonable and doable?

Benjamin Schuster • Partner • Elrod Friedman LLP

Tracking Your Requests

Track your FOIAs! Make sure to take note of the request number, the name of the FOIA officer, when you filed it, when you’re expecting a response, etc. 

Kelly Garcia • Reporter • Injustice Watch

Use online calendar reminders for recurring requests and deadlines, and keep a list of drafts of the things you request most.

Lauren FitzPatrick • Watchdog Reporter • Chicago Sun-Times

Have a template that you use for every FOIA request and set up calendar reminders for yourself about 5-day deadlines and extension deadlines.

Maya Dukmasova • Senior Reporter • Injustice Watch

Ask other reporters for their FOIA templates.

Submit requests for FOIAs the agency has recently fulfilled for others and analyze their productions and language.

Carlos Ballesteros • Senior reporter • Injustice Watch

Creating an airtable or excel sheet is a great way to track your FOIAs in one place.

Leigh Giangreco • Politics Reporter • Crain’s Chicago Business

Use online calendar reminders for recurring requests and deadlines, and keep a list of drafts of the things you request most.

Lauren FitzPatrick • Watchdog Reporter • Chicago Sun-Times

How to Respond

Be persistent. Don’t let an agency off the hook when they don’t respond — it’s illegal!

Taylor Moore • Freelance Journalist

Remember, when somebody won’t release records or claims they have no responsive records, that can be a great first or second story, and it could convince an agency to turn over docs or start answering questions.

Jared Rutecki • Investigative Reporter • WTTW News 

Follow up early and often — public agencies have to be nudged and sometimes shamed into following the law, and that’s part of using FOIA successfully.

Heather Cherone • Chicago Politics Reporter • WTTW News

FOIA Resources

Read the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, especially 5 ILCS 140/6(a) 

“When a person requests a copy of a record maintained in an electronic format, the public body shall furnish it in the electronic format specified by the requester, if feasible. If it is not feasible to furnish the public records in the specified electronic format, then the public body shall furnish it in the format in which it is maintained by the public body” 

— and keep that in mind, especially when you’re requesting data. 

Matt Kiefer • News Applications Editor • WBEZ / Chicago Public Media 

Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press Open Government Guide has a great overview of state records and open meetings laws.

Shelley Geiszler • Attorney • Loevy & Loevy

DePaul’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence resource for FOIA in the Midwest.

Corri Hess • Education Reporter • Wisconsin Public Radio

The National Freedom of Information Coalition ( has some excellent resources on their website, including sample FOIA request letters.

Steve Macek • Professor and Chair • Communication and Media Studies, North Central College

I recommend attending an Investigative Reporters and Editors workshop, like the IRE Chicago Watchdog Workshop that’s coming to Chicago on May 10. I attended one early in my journalism studies in college, and the techniques and principles I learned remain as go-tos for me today.

Maxwell Evans • Reporter • Block Club Chicago

If you’re interested in researching Illinois businesses, try bit.ly/deseguys.

Anthony Moser  
 • Board President, Neighbors For Environmental Justice 
 • Baker, The FOIA Bakery
 • Folk Technologist, Public Data Tools