The Freedom of Information Act, signed in 1966 and in effect since 1967, grants public access to literally millions of government documents, with a few exceptions. As a journalist, the FOIA is a valuable tool, and an easy way to get your story off the ground.
The process for filing a FOIA varies in each state, and you will often find yourself dealing with state law that differs slightly as well, depending on what gov’t agency you are seeking out information from. Rather than try to come up with the wording for the letter, which you can just send via email to the agency, use the Student Press Law Center letter generator, which you can find here.
The form is by far the easiest to use. Simply input the name of the person/agency you are sending it to, what you are looking for, how much you are willing to spend and your contact information – it does the rest! The cost for requesting documents varies, and many agencies will try to make you pay up to 50 cents and sometimes more for a single page of a document. If you are requesting a lot of documents, this can add up fast. To avoid paying hundreds of dollars for information, ask the agency if they can provide you with an electronic copy of the information. That way you avoid the costs and have the information already stored in your computer (which will come in handy if you are going to input the data into a database or spreadsheet later on).
If they do not keep digital copies of the documents, try to see if you can arrange a time to come and view the originals at their office. This can be time consuming, and a little tedious when you have the very agency you are trying to investigate breathing down your neck, but it’s a cost saving measure that can be well worth your trouble.