The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has been a major boon for the media and online publishers.
Prior to FOIA, the government was not required to release much of its data to the general public. But since 1966, the Freedom of Information Act and its subsequent amendments have made it possible for journalists to request and receive previously classified information from specific government agencies.
Since there is no central government authority or database for FOIA, each agency has its own FOIA department. So to request information, you'll need to know which department has the information you need. Once you have identified the proper agency, the process for requesting information is simple and straightforward.
If government data seems beyond your reach, you're missing out on a valuable source of data for your online publishing efforts. Here are some examples of the ways news agencies have used FOIA requests to create compelling and informative stories.
Katrina Aid from Overseas Left Unclaimed (Washington Post)
In 2007, the Washington Post used FOIA to uncover evidence that the government turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid offered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Released documents including diplomatic emails and telegraphs led to Senate hearings about how the government handled Katrina aid.
Backlog of Iraq & Afghanistan Veteran Disability Claims (Media General News Service)
Information released under FOIA revealed that there was a substantial backlog of veterans' disability claims in 2006. One in four veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan had filed claims, highlighting the need for the Veterans Administration to ramp up their efforts to assist the current generation of vets.
Levees at Risk (Associated Press)
The Associated Press filed a FOIA request in 2007 to obtain information from the Army Corps of Engineers about the status of levees throughout the U.S. According to the information that was released, 122 levees across the nation were in jeopardy, creating a scenario in which thousands of homeowners close to the levees could require flood insurance.
Deepwater Horizon Inspections (Associated Press)
Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster and its role in the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, the Associated Press submitted a FOIA request that eventually revealed that the Minerals Management Service failed to perform consistent, monthly inspections of the rig during the five years leading up to the disaster. This disproved claims that the rig had been properly inspected by federal agencies.