I'm a big advocate for government transparency and believe there is a very important need for the public, especially journalists, to understand and know to use FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. In short, this act requires government agencies to keep records of certain things, for example, how it spends its money, and requires that that information is made available for public inspection.
As a recent college grad from one of the top journalism schools in the country, I feel the biggest need for improvement in the coursework of J-schools is on education and emphasis of FOIA. Journalists can use FOIA to find stories, verify what they are told by public information officers, and use it to keep governments accountable ... after all that is the job of every journalist.
Not everything is available through FOIA, but the onus is on the agency to prove why something should remain secret, not why it should be released. Unfortunately, agencies can often be difficult or downright combative in releasing information. Sometimes that leads to lawsuits, while other times understanding the process, tailoring a request and being assertive can go a long way toward getting the information you're seeking.
From time to time, I'll be posting on this blog issues that relate to FOIA and even some of the issues I've run into with my own requests, but to get started here is a recent video by Vice News with Investigative Reporter Jason Leopold. It's about a half-hour long and Leopold takes the time to answer questions about FOIA and provide some advice on how to deal with uncooperative agencies.