Request records like a pro in the age of COVID

screens of data in different colors (Depositphotos)

By Charlie Wolfson

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Requesting and parsing public documents have always been integral parts of the investigative reporter’s toolkit, but COVID-19 has made the process even more difficult. Knowing how to file a request to find information about the pandemic, as well as other issues, is more important than ever.

Michael Morisy, cofounder of MuckRock, spoke March 5 at the all-virtual NICAR journalism conference on how to get into the mind of the public records officer and find the data you need to report on COVID-19 in your community. 

“Reporting on this crisis, you really need to look at all the different angles,” Morisy said. “Public records can be a really important tool, no matter what your beat is, for reporting on these issues.”

What to request

The first, and sometimes the most difficult step in obtaining public records is knowing what to ask for. Especially when an agency doesn’t particularly want certain records to be reported, it takes a specific, well-tailored request to get your hands on good data.

While some outlets have COVID-19 reporters, the pandemic has become a focal point of every beat, from education to law enforcement to medicine. If you’ve been on a beat for a while, there are probably new requests you should add to your public records routine.

Think about how COVID-19 has changed your beat

For example, if you cover education, request documentation on laptop and tech distribution. You might never have made this request before COVID-19. 

Ask leaders to show their work

Many local leaders have said that they’re going to “let the science guide us” through the COVID-19 crisis without offering any specifics. Morisy suggested requesting documentation of the scientific guidelines in use. What is the science that guided a governor to reopen casinos before schools?

See what decision makers see

It can be helpful to “take off your reporter’s hat” for a moment, Morisy said, and view the situation through the eyes of the officials you are reporting on.

“If I was in charge of this institution, what is the data that I would naturally be seeing?” Morisy said. “And then start thinking, what would I request as a result of that.”

Find dissent within the government

Morisy noted that government employees tend to record their concerns and complaints in writing so that if things go haywire in the future they’ll be on the record as having done their part to avoid whatever failure may come. Those records are requestable.

“One of the rules for surviving long in government is always make sure there’s a paper trail defending your actions,” Morisy said.

COVID-19 has exposed this phenomenon. For example, prison employees have lodged complaints with higher-ups nationwide, warning of unsafe conditions for incarcerated people and prison staff. 

“As a requester, what you’re thinking through is, however things are percolating in that organization, what are things you can request?” Morisy said. “Complaints within an institution, people who have raised concerns about COVID-19, formalized requests to have a policy change.”

Think like a middle manager

Request anything that might come across a middle manager’s desk.

  • Mandatory reporting: Most government activity is required to be documented in writing.
  • Procedure and process: What paperwork would be needed to implement a program, such as a vaccine rollout?
  • Public admission: Sometimes government admits that records exist. They say: “We’re getting reports” or “We’re tracking incidents.” Follow up.

Tips on having your requests fulfilled

Filing your request is (often less than) half the battle. It has always been common for agencies to drag their feet on fulfilling requests, and COVID-19 has exacerbated that. Many agencies shifted resources away from public records releases last year, saying that they needed to focus on the crisis at hand.

What makes a good request?

Morisy said every request should:

  • Be clearly defined. If it’s vague or broad, it’s easier for the agency to say the request is overly burdensome.
  • Set date parameters. You likely don’t need the records going back to the agency’s 1800s inception. Asking for things you don’t need only hurts you by making it less likely for the request to be fulfilled.
  • Explain that you’re a journalist. Most requesters are not.
  • Document how you know the records exist. If you don’t show evidence that records exist, officials can claim that they don’t.

Treat the process like a negotiation

You can glean information from the requesting process. If an agency requires an exorbitant fee for a request, ask for a breakdown of where the records are coming from and why the fee is incurred. This can give you valuable information before the request is even fulfilled.

Morisy pointed out that PIOs are often not the most beloved people inside their own agencies. This makes it possible to try to get them to be your ally by using empathy. They are often not the person standing in the way of your request, and often they are dealing with archaic technology.

Ask someone else

Agencies often coordinate with other offices that fall under open records laws. This is especially useful when the agency you’re interested in doesn’t fall under open records laws, such as private prisons or charter schools.

Oversight agencies, including an inspector general’s office, also produce mountains of records pertaining to agencies that may be shutting you out.

Make sure the agency knows you know the documents exist

“Details are really important when it comes to public records requests and being able to make sure the agency knows you’ve done your homework and you know the documents exist,” Morisy said. “That’s going to make them look a lot harder for that and make it a lot harder for them to say, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Find the records yourself

A lot of information is out there for the taking. Before you fire off an email to a public records officer, do some routine checks of these resources:

  • The agency’s website.
  • MuckRock.com
  • FOIA Mapper
  • Google

Google is a powerful tool with the right search terms. Including “site:.gov” limits results to government websites. “Filetype:ppt” will limit results to Powerpoint presentations.

Morisy said that “most of government is run on Powerpoints and pdfs” and if you search for these file types, you can find internal documents that an agency might not even realize is publicly accessible.

A Google search of “vaccine site:.gov filetype:ppt” could turn up revealing internal communications within local governments about vaccines.

MuckRock is a partner of The Accountability Project, which curates, standardizes and indexes public data to give journalists, researchers and others a way to search across otherwise siloed records.