Those requests are made through what’s known as FOIA — journalists pronounce it “FOY-ah” — and refer to laws that govern public information.
While news reporters are some of the most prolific users of these laws, they’re definitely not just for journalists. Here’s how you can get access to the same treasure trove of data and records.
First, decide exactly what information you want. The more specific the description, the more successful your request will be. For example, instead of asking for “a list of school employee salaries,” ask for “Wake County school administrator base salaries in the 2017-18 school year.”
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What can you ask for? State and federal laws list what’s considered “public record” and also list exemptions. (In some states, the list of exemptions is quite extensive.) Here’s some FOIA information used by journalists to write some important news stories. And here are some unusual FOIA requests. Want more examples? UNC publishes all of the requests they receive.
Next, determine who has that information so you know where to send your request. Is it a local, state or federal agency? And which agency? Check the agency’s website, or call and ask for the “information officer.” If you still need help, check with the North Carolina Open Government Coalition or the federal FOIA folks.
Write your request. Here’s a sample letter you can copy and add your own information. But you aren’t required to use a template, and you don’t need to sound lawyerly. Just articulate your request clearly and concisely.
Important note: You don’t need to explain why you need the information or how you’re going to use it. And you don’t have to be a resident of the state or locality where you’re requesting the information.
Sit back and wait. While some requests can be filled quickly — particularly an easy request in your hometown — it’s not unusual for a response to take weeks, months and even years. Check state law for regulations on response time.
If you need help or have a complaint about how your request was handled, try the Federal FOIA Ombudsman, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, or the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.