FOI Tips

via cooljustice.blogspot.com

via cooljustice.blogspot.com

I’ve dealt with a lot of FOI stuff in the past year and I wanted to briefly touch on some tips that I’ve noticed in my dealings with the FOI Act and my formal requests. I have to warn you that this is very, very brief and not a step-by-step guide to FOI law or how the entire process works. These are just tips that I’ve picked up on and continued to use.

What exactly do you want?

Before you make a formal request of any kind, make sure you know what you want. Get as specific as you can, as to eliminate needless things that won’t help whatever story/series you are trying to do.

If you aren’t sure what you need or want, then take the time to, either talk to an editor or with a colleague. There’s nothing worse then spending what little time you do have off deadline without a direction for your FOI request.

That’s only common sense. And if you are a first timer I would definitely check with an editor or two, to ensure you go through the proper channels and understand all of what FOI has to offer. For Connecticut’s FOI Act go here. It’s easy and searchable.

What will you actually get?

Be prepared for exemptions. Plain and simple. Sometimes you’ll get an exemption or two, but the trick is to ask for an explanation of each exemption in your formal request. If you don’t, you are selling yourself short.

Also, be as specific in your request as humanly possible. It will make your life easier and help the person processing your request fully understand what you are looking for.

And set a clear time period. For Connecticut, it’s four business days. Don’t worry I checked on that the other week for a request. If you send in a formal request without a timeline, you will get nothing quickly. I can guarantee that.

For a nice guide to Connecticut Law about FOI go here.

How do you get it?

From what I’ve encountered, it can be as easy as a formal request via e-mail. I have yet to actually mail anything in, yet. I’ve only done my requests through e-mail and it’s worked out fine. For sample FOI request letters go here.

The samples are insanely easy to use. All you have to do is add your information, what you are looking for and the deadline you are setting. If it’s paperwork, then you may have to pay for it, but your newspaper should reimburse you for that, depending on how many files/documents we are talking about.

If it’s as simple as a scan or e-mail, it should come to your inbox within the time-frame you asked for. If not, you can always file a complaint. I have yet to do that and I hope I never have to.

FOI is a great tool for journalists.

Do any of you have any FOI experience or stories? Let me know!

Jonathan (Happy Holidays)

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