How to be a better watchdog

INDIANAPOLIS -- Joel Campbell, co-chairman of SPJ's national Freedom of Information Committee, knows what it takes to be an effective "watchdog" of government. During the National FOI Summit in Indianapolis, he shared some of his "keys" to unlocking government records.

It all starts, he said, with "thinking strategically" about the particular agency or agencies in which you have an interest.

Here are a few of Campbell's tips on what to do BEFORE making a records request:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the access laws for your particular locality.
  2. Map the government. What agency does what? Who reports to whom?
  3. Identify documents that might be generated by the activities of a particular office.
  4. Get a master index of available documents, which often are found on Web sites of government agencies. Also look for "retention schedules," which identify how long specific records are required by law to be kept.
  5. See what others have done with records. Investigative Reporters and Editors, for example, maintains a library of tip sheets at its Web site at http://www.ire.org/.
  6. Set aside a little time each week to think about what records you want to see.

When you are ready to make a request, here are some things that Campbell says will increase your chances of success:

  1. Avoid "fishing expeditions," Be as specific as you can about the record(s) you want to inspect or obtain.
  2. If you are seeking multiple records, prioritize them so an agency knows what is most important to you.
  3. Ask verbally first; file a written request if necessary.
  4. Be polite but persistent. Know the law and cite it.
  5. Use online letter generators to draft records requests, but be careful of the tone. Don't threaten legal action right off the bat. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a letter generator for federal Freedom of Information Act requests at http://ww.rcfp.org. Many state letter forms can be found at the Web site of the Student Press Law Center, http://www.splc.org. (State coalitions also have state-specific letters for local government, including Indiana's at http://www.indianacog.org)
  6. Keep records of your requests and all correspondence related to them.