On the FOI Beat

Story by Aimee Edmondson, Missouri School of Journalism

Kansas City Star reporter Mike McGraw sets aside plenty of time for the care and feeding of sources. He works to develop relationships with Freedom of Information officers within various public agencies, so when he needs a document, he knows who to call first.

McGraw even joined the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) and attends the non-profit group's annual conference. As a member, he got a directory of all ASAP members, who are primarily government officials whose jobs include public access, along with their agency affiliation and telephone numbers. He cultivates them as sources and some of those FOIA officers have even helped him write the letters to get the information he wants.

"I think of myself as a little germ, and I'm looking for orifices," said McGraw, a Pulitzer Prize winner. "FOIA is another entry point."

Cox Newspapers national correspondent Rebecca Carr is another expert in working sources – from receptionists, to legal aides, to public relations people – in hopes of making relationships that will help her get the information she needs. She makes an effort to learn about sources' families. She asks about their kids and tells them something of herself. They begin to see her as a person – not just a reporter – and they realize they can trust her to be fair in her reporting.

"You are only as good as your sources," Carr said.

If you've been turned down or stonewalled, think of other ways to get the information, McGraw said. For example, he asked for and was denied names of food poisoning victims by the Centers for Disease Control because of privacy concerns. So he asked for all letters from lawyers corresponding with the CDC regarding food poisoning. He got more than 70.

"Those lawyers were more than happy to get my phone call," McGraw said.

In another example, he and many other reporters were looking for a Food and Drug Administration inspection report of a plant that manufactures flu vaccinations. There had been a flu vaccine shortage due to problems at the plant and he knew the FDA had hundreds of related documents.

After the FDA stalled on his request, he searched LexisNexis to find any lawsuits relating to the operation of the plant. McGraw found a story about a suit filed by someone who had a negative reaction to the vaccine, and he called the lawyer quoted in the story. That lawyer had the FDA inspection report on his desk and mailed it to McGraw the same day.

"Think of all the different ways you could get the information, McGraw said. "I thought to myself, ‘Who else would want this record?' Always look for other people who want the same record you do."

Carr pointed out that since government secrecy is on the rise, it's more important than ever to try to cultivate a source on the inside to tell you if records are really there or not. It is helpful to have insiders telling you specifically what to ask for. She and others have been stonewalled most often on homeland security records, and documents relating to terrorism.

"The government says secrecy is a necessary tool to beat back terrorists. I would argue it's a jackhammer on the First Amendment and a jackhammer of public's right to know," Carr said. "At federal level, their favorite trick right now is to delay you and delay you and delay you."

Both Carr and McGraw have waiting years for some requests to come through. They keep calendars of what they requested and when, and they follow up regularly to check on the status of those requests.

Don't forget about those FOIA requests, McGraw said. That's just what some public officials want reporters to do. "You've got to use FOIA," McGraw said. "And you've got to use it often."

For more information about public records issues relating to the growing secrecy movement, go to http://openthegovernment.org/ for its Secrecy Report Card.