Freedom Of Information Laws In 2016
71,000 pages and counting.
BuzzFeed News has come of age as a news organization at a time when government agencies are fighting harder than ever to keep documents out of the hands of journalists. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can be a powerful tool for uncovering information that government agencies don't want the public to see. But these processes consume time and energy, designed at times to frustrate reporters' inquiries.
Led by Assistant General Counsel Nabiha Syed, BuzzFeed has invested heavily over the past 18 months in fighting these battles. We'd like to share the scale and effects of that work.
From January 2015 to date, BuzzFeed has obtained nearly 71,000 pages of documents and five databases in response to appealed requests, threatened, and successful lawsuits. We have negotiated public records from 62 different agencies in 22 different states. Our data investigations team alone has filed one FOIA request approximately every three days.
This FOIA strategy has been instrumental to some of BuzzFeed News' highest impact stories. Chris McDaniel, Tasneem Nashrulla and Chris Geidner's powerful reporting on the death penalty exposed the shady business of state-sanctioned executions, and was the result of more than 160 FOIA requests submitted to 60 different agencies, most frequently to Nebraska's Department of Corrections. This reporting led to Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts' announcement that the state would cease attempts to import execution drugs, and forced the Oklahoma Attorney General's office to admit that it provided inaccurate information on a lethal injection case to the Supreme Court. And Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton resigned after BuzzFeed News reported that he'd committed several mistakes during his times as a corrections official in Arizona.
Aram Roston's award-winning investigative series into America's largest for-profit foster care company, Mentor, exposed the tragic death of a baby while in the company's care, and was rooted partly in documents obtained through public information requests in 15 different states. His reporting ultimately led the Senate Finance Committee to launch an inquiry into the company, requesting that all 50 governors provide the names of private foster care providers, state inspection and accreditation practices, financial information, and abuse rates. Mentor pulled its business from five states including Texas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and North Carolina.
In the course of their reporting on civil injustices in Texas, Alex Campbell and Kendall Taggart submitted more than 50 requests to county law enforcement agencies and local courts through the Texas Public Information Act. Their inquiries into the systematic imprisonment of students who skip school in Texas led Gov. Greg Abbott to sign into law a new approach to truancy, which would put a stop to the controversial practice. Additionally, their reporting on citizens in El Paso being imprisoned for being too poor to pay minor fines led the City Council to launch a review of the municipal court's practices, and they ultimately voted to curb the practice.
Ken Bensinger, Jessica Garrison and Jeremy Singer-Vine's award-winning series on the controversial H-2 work visa program, which allows US companies to hire seasonal workers from outside the US, exposed the widespread abuse and victimization of these individuals once they arrive here. The team filed hundreds of FOIA requests to at least three different agencies, including the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The series led members of Congress to call for stronger worker protections.
BuzzFeed also hosted its inaugural FOIA data hackathon in April, where journalists, programmers, academics and any others interested were invited to a day-long event all about FOIA. Participants explored datasets provided by MuckRock and collected by BuzzFeed, and the resulting projects focused on everything from a scorecards system to illustrate agency response times to patterns in who actually requests information. (More about our FOIA data hackday here from BuzzFeed Open Lab Senior Fellow Amanda Hickman.)
These are just some examples of the high-impact reporting derived from an aggressive FOIA strategy. But despite our successes on this front, there's still a lot of work to be done. Our editorial staff reported a success rate of approximately 60% when it comes to having their requests filled, and some agencies proved especially difficult to work with. There were often inconsistencies in how and when documents were received, and many requests are still pending or seem to have been ignored.
Some of the real solutions here are legislative and legal — beginning with federal and state agencies complying with freedom of information laws. But in the meantime, the best thing media organizations can do is make clear that we'll fight for documents.