4 Ways to Get Your Hands on Vital Public Information

By Lynn Walsh, RTDNA Blogger

Sometimes as a journalist, I find that obtaining information ends up being the hardest task I face all day. You ask for it nicely, you ask for it formally, you are forwarded from one agency or department to the next and still at the end of the day are left without the police report, the data and the answers you were looking for.

I am sure most of us have been there, especially during breaking news situations. An accident or shooting occurs and you want answers. The agency spokesperson may not be saying much and when you put in a formal request through state public information laws or FOIA, your response may be thwarted by an on-going investigation, calls from the spokesperson, etc.

Unfortunately this is something I face more than I would like. So why don't I just give up? Well, I feel that one of my roles as a journalists is to obtain information for the public and share it with them. The public is entitled to the same information I am, but do they have the time to fight for it like I do? Some may, but most just do not have the time and that is why I feel it is important for us as journalists to hold freedom of information and public information laws to the laws and statutes that they are.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things to think about when trying to obtain information:

There is a difference between a PIO and an agency spokesperson: Sometimes they may be the same person and if that's the case make sure you are getting complete responses from them when you submit a public information request and not just an agency response. An agency response is fine if that is what you asked for, or if you asked for a comment. But, if you requested documents or data or a report under a law or statute then make sure you receive the proper response to that and not a bunch of excuses or questions from a public relations employee.

Think before placing the request: Sometimes you do not need to obtain the information through a public information request, so don't. Sometimes a question can be answered by the spokesperson or the PR person. I know this is something I am guilty of at times and I am really trying to pay more attention to this. If you submit requests for easy questions, you are just creating more work for the agency or department, which slows down response time for other requests.

Make your request very formal: The easiest way to do this is to work with your lawyer to draft a template letter that can be sent to all government agencies and departments in the state so that all  you have to change is what you are requesting. Public information laws vary from state to state but asking for things to be sent digitally, at no cost will help you. (So will asking for an explanation if they are not handing over information.) Even if they are not required by law to send data or documents digitally, you can always ask for it that way and you may be pleasantly surprised. Having a form letter will make it easier if you ever have to take legal action to obtain information.

Hold them to your letter: Once you have a formal letter, be sure to hold them to what you asked for. If you asked them to provide the statute under which they are withholding information, make sure they do so. Do not just settle with a response from them saying they are not releasing it. The same is true for digital copies. If you asked for information digitally and they say you can come pick up copies, contact them and have a conversation about whether the info can be provided digitally. The same goes for viewing information. In some states there is no charge for viewing documents. If you have the time and can view them, make sure they are aware of this and make sure they make that option available.

I know there are tons of other little tricks of the trade when it comes to obtaining information. If you know of others, send them my way, Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com or @LWalsh on Twitter. One of the best things to do is to have an open dialogue with the records custodian and talk to them about what you are looking for. Sometimes this conversation is best had before putting in a request.

Final thought: If journalists start allowing agencies and department and states to get away with half-answering our responses, what will this mean when the public attempts to request information? Maybe allowing the laws to be bent won't change a thing, but I don't want to take that chance.

Lynn Walsh is the Investigative Producer for WPTV, NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach, Florida. You can contact her on Twitter, @LWalsh or by e-mail, Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.