Missed Information

By Doyle, Michael | The Washington Monthly, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Missed Information


Doyle, Michael, The Washington Monthly


The reporting tool that reporters don't use

THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT (FOIA) can be a reporter's best friend. But consider this: The Environmental Protection Agency receives about 22,000 FOIA requests annually. One percent come from the media. Or this: In 1998 the Drug Enforcement Administration received more FOIA requests from prisoners than from reporters. Or this: The National Security Agency has received more requests for information about UFOs than for any topic from reporters. Or, symptomatically, this: The apparent 1998 champion for aggressively filing FOIA requests across multiple federal agencies was not a dogged investigative reporter but a political operative seeking dirt on an opponent.

Certainly, a few reporters do use the Freedom of Information Act--sometimes with spectacular results. Reporter Russell Carollo of the Dayton Daily News filed more than 100 FOIA requests for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on military medicine he co-authored with Jeff Nesmith. But most reporters never use the law at all. Many FOIA-centered stories in newspapers come, not from reporters' initiative, but from special interests who use the law to dig up information that they then feed to reporters. Moreover, although the whole point of FOIA is to dig up the lid on executive branch operations, the few reporters who do use FOIA often couldn't care less about the executive agency they're demanding information from; they want copies of letters sent from members of Congress to various agencies and aren't really probing bureaucracies so much as seeking evidence of congressional muscle. In one small but illustrative example, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics received six FOIA requests from the media in 1998. Three of these sought copies of congressional correspondence. Similarly, Transportation Department headquarters received 22 FOIA requests from reporters in 1998; 13 of these, more than half, sought congressional letters. This FOIA-enabled search for congressional letters, however meritorious, reflects the general tendency among Washington-based reporters to concentrate on Congress and ignore the administrative agencies. More broadly, it highlights just how cramped journalistic FOIA use has become.

Few and Far Between

The law is pretty easy to understand and generally easy to use. In short, the Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966, establishes a presumption that records in the possession of agencies and departments of the executive branch of the government should be accessible to the people. And usually, to get these records, you don't even need a stamp. Requests for documents from executive agencies--Congress, predictably, excluded itself from the law's reach--can now often be faxed to designated FOIA offices. Professional organizations like the Investigative Reporters and Editors run FOIA workshops, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's useful Internet site includes an automatic FOIA letter-generator that makes filing a snap (http://www.rcfp.org/). Recalcitrant agencies can also be prodded by lawsuits. Yes, it can sometimes be a hassle; and, yes, the wait can sometimes be interminable. But the rewards can be abundant; moreover, frequent use of FOIA helps keep bureaucracies on their toes, and helps fend off those who contend the law has lost its Fourth Estate rationale.

"My sense is, it's not being used nearly as much as I think it should be," said Alan Miller, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. "I think reporters become discouraged, understandably, by the amount of time it takes ... it's unfortunate, and it's a missed opportunity."

We know this is so, in part, thanks to the law itself. Using the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained the so-called FOIA logs from about two dozen federal agencies. These are the records of requests made during 1998. The logs themselves are a hodgepodge that highlight how different agencies handle FOIA. …

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