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Journalism Made Possible Because of the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act is fundamental to investigative journalism. Here’s our strange attempt to get you to care about it.

This story first appeared in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

If the Freedom of Information Act were a person, who would it be? That’s a real question I asked our newsroom this week, because that’s the kind of thing I randomly think about.

Really, though, I asked this of our newsroom because I genuinely want you to care about FOIA. And I thought that if I could get inside our reporters’ heads — to understand what they envision when that acronym comes up, be it Dwight from “The Office” or whoever — I could help you put a metaphorical face on a law that is not only fundamental to the work we do as investigative journalists but is also essential to our democracy. Plus, if you have a face to associate with FOIA, maybe that would help it stick in your brain.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Freedom of Information Act is a law that allows anyone — yes, including you — to request records and documents from the government. This could mean, for example, a homeowner filing a request for records of government spending in their town, a lawyer filing for environmental assessments of a property or a journalist filing for records of incident reports in a prison. Although filing a FOIA request seems pretty straightforward — technically, all you need to do is send a letter or email to the FOIA officer detailing your request — we can vouch for the fact that, sometimes, the process can be anything but.

We at ProPublica Illinois are interested in exploring how FOIA plays out here in Illinois, and we’re particularly interested in hearing from non-journalists about how they’ve used FOIA. So, if you’ve got something to tell us, email me at [email protected].

So, let me tell you about some of the work we would not have been able to accomplish in the last month if not for FOIA. And then you’ll hear about some of the bizarre characters that come to mind for the reporters of those stories when they hear the word “FOIA.”

via GIPHY

  • In our story about the city losing track of police discipline cases so officers escape punishment, a video of the 911 calls made by Brandon Whitehead, and the officer who pulled him over one night in 2006, was created through FOIA. The calls document the incident, which later led to Brandon filing a complaint against the officer, who did not serve his punishment until 11 years later. Reporter Jodi S. Cohen told me her FOIA request for other 911 calls was originally denied, and she had to argue to get them. So Jodi’s answer to the question, “If FOIA were a person, who would it be?” is this: “Anna from ‘Frozen.’ She gets ignored and is in the shadows but she has a lot of power.”

  • Mick Dumke, who reported our investigation into low-level gun traffickers, told me FOIA is “one of those things you use so often, you often forget” how much material in a story can come from it. In his story, he used FOIA to get records on prosecutions from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and police reports on people associated with the case. “The trick is to figure out how to use it,” Mick told me. “I usually think of it as a public shaming device. If agencies or individuals don’t comply with the FOIA, we let everyone know.” So, here’s who comes to mind for Mick: “Basically a politician who’s gone on the record promising democracy. We know what it says, and now we have to find ways to apply pressure so everyone around it follows through.”

via GIPHY

  • And data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati told me one of the first things she did at ProPublica Illinois is FOIA the record retention schedules for major departments with the city and state. This, she said, helps her get a better idea of where and how their data is kept, so our reporters can be specific when requesting information. Since June, she’s sent 972 FOIAs, with 725 fulfilled as of Nov. 15. Only 424 were fulfilled on time. So when I asked her what comes to mind when she hears the word FOIA, she related her experience dealing with what can be a slow process. To her, sometimes waiting for FOIAs to come in is like standing in line at the counter with the sloth from “Zootopia.”

I thought this was too fun of a question to just keep in our newsroom, so I put the question out on Twitter, as I tend to do. Here’s what other people said:

Clearly, there’s some resentment out there when it comes to pinning down the ever-elusive FOIA. And if you’ve made it this far in the article, congratulations, your nerdiness has been confirmed. So if you’ve got something to say about the FOIA experiences in your life (or just want to share how you imagine FOIA as a person), here’s your big chance.

Write me at [email protected]. Or tweet me @loganjaffe.

’Til next time,

Logan

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Portrait of Logan Jaffe

Logan Jaffe

Logan Jaffe is the engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois.

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