Fun with FOIA! An assignment and walkthrough on open records, sunshine laws and more

A number of folks had been asking for some help with an open-records/Freedom-of-Information-Act assignment, so I thought this might be a good time to add it to the mix on the Corona Hotline help page.

What I’ve got here is the assignment my junior-level course is doing regarding open record requests. They’re required to FOIA something in a formal fashion, get the records and write something decent out of it.

(Yes, I know, “FOIA” refers to the federal government and its open records policies etc., while states have “sunshine laws” or “openness standards” or whatever else. I explain the difference, but you can’t turn “sunshine law” into a verb, which is why FOIA is much cooler…)

I’ve also uploaded some appendix work I did in advance of the second edition of the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” It lays out a basic letter and explains why it works the way it does.

(Yes, I know there are open-records templates and open-record-request generators online,  but I have them work off of something like this so they can not only get used to doing it, but to see how each piece works. It’s like the difference between buying a new carburetor and rebuilding your old one: If you take it apart and put it back together, you learn how and why it operates the way it does, which can be inordinately helpful in life.)

Students of mine have done some incredible work with this kind of thing, or just answered basic questions like “How much money does the parking department make off of expired-meter tickets?” and “How many people got busted for public urination during this year’s “Pub Crawl?” It’s less about breaking the next Watergate story and more about learning the process. In addition, it helps them figure out what kinds of things they can get and what those items can tell them.

Hope it helps!

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

One thought on “Fun with FOIA! An assignment and walkthrough on open records, sunshine laws and more

  1. Vince, I love this, and I’ve tried to get my students more comfortable with FOIA in my Public Affairs Reporting class, but it has been difficult. Do you have some tools (PPTs, assignments, etc.) you’d be willing to share?

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