I started this FOIA experiment almost 11 weeks ago and have been walking you through every important point in the journey since. I have been documenting the process from the moment I first filed my requests until two weeks ago when I finally received some of the documents I was hoping for, which I showed you in my previous post. While the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas still has two days to respond to my FOIA request, I thought I would go ahead and reflect back on this entire process and what it has taught me about being a journalist.
The first lesson I learned is that FOIA requests take a long time. From the moment I filed the requests until I finally got the documents, the process took between eight and nine weeks for the Fort Worth Department of Planning and Development and still has not been concluded for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Therefore, as a journalist, it is important to give these requests ample time to reach their desired result. If you need data for a story and can only receive it through a FOIA request, then it is vital that you make that filing weeks and months in advance in order to allow time for any complications or back and forth communication with the agency about the requested documents.
The second lesson I learned was that these FOIA requests need to be incredibly specific. The complications and set backs I had in this process were all due to lack of specificity and a need for more clarification. These mishaps set my receiving of the documents I requested back several weeks, which could be too late if I had a story on deadline. Therefore, I learned how important it is to be clear, concise and specific in FOIA requests in order to better your chances of receiving the desired information in a timely manner.
Lastly, I learned that no matter the time and effort it takes to make a FOIA request, it is worth it. Receiving the documents and seeing concrete numbers and information that I would not have otherwise known showed me how important and beneficial data can be for an article. As I mentioned in my last post, numbers are the perfect supplementary information to a story to give it both relevance and credibility for the reader. Specific data can also put mere ideas into a concrete form that is easier for readers to picture and understand. Lastly, FOIA requests can give journalists information that people would not readily disclose on their own accord. However, since it is our right as citizens to know, we can find that information and educate ourselves on the issues at hand.
Therefore, this FOIA project has been incredibly beneficial and enlightening to me as a journalist. FOIA requests are something I will continue to use in my future articles and other writings, because I believe I have only barely scratched the surface of the possibilities of exercising this constitutional right as a citizen of the United States of America. There is so much information rightly available to us. All we have to do is ask for it.