How to file a FOIA

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.

Can’t find who you’re looking for?

Ever work on a story and can’t find who you’re looking for? Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to get in touch with a source, and journalists are constantly finding new ways to get around this.
It used to be that you would pick up the phone book to find someone, but while the white pages can still be useful, you might try Pipl. Unlike most search engines today, Pipl searches the deep web. At the Campus Coverage Project in Phoenix last January, NICAR experts with IRE recommended the site as a valuable tool for any reporter. Instead of digging through the various searches and social media, do all your searching in one place and let Pipl aggregate everything for you.
Still not convinced? Try searching for yourself to gauge the accuracy of the deep web.

Start searching here.

The rise of “Computational Journalism?”

Computer Assisted Reporting, or CAR, has long been considered the standard term for big project journalism based on data analysis. But with a greater need to provide context around numbers in the media, that term is changing.

Jonathan Stray, a reporter/computer scientist, wrote on his blog last month that computational journalism could be defined as: “…the application of computer science to the problems of public information, knowledge, and belief, by practitioners who see their mission as outside of both commerce and government.”

But while the ever changing media world develops a working definition of the term, the basic facets of information gathering — reporting — are still there. Stray goes further, breaking down key aspects of computational journalism, including:

Data journalism, which Stray defines as the traditional model of computer assisted reporting most commonly applied to databasing information through spreadsheets.

Visualization, in addition to the reporting side of things, there is the visualization aspect that accompanies most stories today, and is key to drawing in an audience.

Technology, with an ever increasing amount of new ways to get out information, Stray emphasized the importance of networks, cryptography, and information theory. To track and filter the spread of all the information, we rely on a variety of online tools, including social media, Google News and Interceder, which you can check out here: http://interceder.net/

In addition to the vast array of tools available to measure the spread of information on the Internet, Stray also touches on the effects that journalism has on the public. This kind of post-production analysis is largely lacking today, and could be expanded upon with the rise of computational journalism.

To check out the full post go here: http://jonathanstray.com/a-computational-journalism-reading-list