A few months back, I had planned on posting a very irate and personal account of my experiences filing public records requests. The draft was aptly named, “Why FOIA Sucks,” and contained a very specific kind of palpable anger that only reporters and civic-minded document petitioners can understand.
I never did post that entry because the very same week I received a request from the U.S. Department of Labor that I had been waiting on for two months. And so, my sense of anger and frustration temporarily subsided, replaced by a brief period of elation and papercut-induced happiness.
Flash forward a few months and I wonder if my feelings on the laws have changed at all.
At the Columbia J-School, my computer-assisted reporting professor was a member of a very specific camp of anti-FOIA data journalists. To him, FOIA was nothing but a way for governments to block anything worth getting. By the time the documents usually arrive, he said, the story is almost moot.
The guy has a point.
When FOIAs take weeks, months, or hell, years, to fulfill, who really wins? Certainly it’s not the reporter who filed it hoping it would come way before it actually arrived. Nor is it the sole public records officer who probably received minimum wage, no benefits, and an earful from said reporter throughout the process. But most importantly, the public. The public almost definitely doesn’t win.
Of course everything has it caveats. If you’re talking ProPublica, CIR, or any large data-dumping, database-sharing non-profit outlets, or even just heavily-lawyered traditional outlets, then yes, FOIAs really can make the difference (and the Pulitzer). But in an age of freelancers and bloggers, is FOIA worthwhile and effective?
More and more, the controversial datasets in news media arise from leaks. But with the recent crackdown on whistleblowers, it’s unclear whether jaded government employees are going to be willing to put their livelihoods on the line to share confidential data as journalists’ ability to protect them continues to diminish.
All I know is that even as a local county reporter, FOIA (or FOIL, the L or A depends on whether you’re requesting locally or federally) is still a pain in the behind when it comes to obtaining data that can make or break a story.
I recently received an over 300-page PDF chart. And not just any chart, it’s a chart where each row breaks into uneven columns and subcolumns, rendering even high-quality PDF to Excel converters useless. I estimate it’ll take me several hours just to get some of the data properly labeled in the Excel file because each ‘row’ of data can contain anywhere from 15 to over 30 columns.
I immediately filed an appeal when I realized the documents weren’t even what I had asked for. The records officer had literally given me whatever spit out of their entire program that covers several types of government agencies, ignoring my request entirely for a very specific type of event under one of the agencies.
Now, most reporters won’t complain that they’ve been given more than what they ask, especially if the potential of discovering unexpected wrongdoing or shadyness exists. But sometimes, you really just want what it is you asked for because the more data, the more unmanageable they become.
Yes, I want to be optimistic that upcoming programs like CIR’s FOIA Machine will be able to change the tone of what it means to be compliant with freedom of information laws in favor of more transparency…but I remain skeptical. Laws are laws, but unenforced laws are a slippery slope of sadness.