The FOIA is a term for Freedom of Information Act Laws. If you go to a public university or college, your school falls under your state’s public records law. And a nifty exercise is to ask for a list of all public records requests filed for period of time. That means that you can find out what other people request. All public records requests are themselves public records. The school is supposed to keep a “log” of these requests. So that’s what you should ask for. You can see what a log looks like by Googling a big agency and FOIA Log.
Below, is a section of the FOIA log of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They make them available by month online.
Use the Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Request letter generator to give you the legal wording for your state’s public records law. It’s a super easy process. You will also want to track down who, in your university, handles public records requests. If you can’t figure that out, send it to the university president.
Make sure you ask for the name of the requestor, the organization the requestor represents, the date of the request, a summary of the request, and the status –whether it was granted, pending or denied.
Any documents your university has already released through a public records request, you should be able to get immediately.
The Des Moines Register has been combing through reports of the Iowa Board of Regents and found that students at three public universities Iowa State, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa are getting hit with increases on all kinds of non-tuition fees for things that tuition used to pay for.
This is a national problem. My students found the same thing happening at the California State University System when they took a look at rising fees there a few years ago. You might want to take a look at your own university tab and see what kinds of fees you have to pay. Then start asking your administration to break out what the money generated by each fee actually funds. You might find that administrators have a lot of leeway into how they can spend student fee money.
Even at a small campus paper, you can do a big investigation if you plan ahead. See if you can get four to five people interested in taking on a big project. Over a term you’ve got between 10-15 weeks to carry it out. Rarely these days do reporters take on big projects by themselves. That’s particularly true since it is no longer enough to prove a case and write up a story. These days, you need to package your story and that means art, video and audio. So who do you want on an I-Team? Look for people with different skills:
- Someone good with numbers and spreadsheets.
- Someone with good news judgement — who can spot the story in all the information you are bound to gather.
- Someone who can handle the visuals– the photos and videos.
- Someone good with audio.
- And of course, a solid interviewer.
Okay, this is the A-Team and you want an I-Team. But note how each member of the A-Team brought different skills to the team.
Make sure everyone understands who is in charge. You don’t want to put a lot of work into a big reporting project only to have it fall apart over disagreements. There needs to be someone in charge who can make the difficult calls when disagreements arise.