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TRAC’s FOIA Panel Attracts a Large Audience Interested in Government Transparency

by FOIA Project Staff on March 23rd, 2021

TRAC’s panel event “The Public Has a Right to Know” held in partnership with the Newhouse School of Public Communications on March 16, 2021, attracted more than 600 registrants and led to a rich discussion about practical ways that journalists are using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to support investigative journalism. The event was held during Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to promote open government. Newhouse Dean Mark Lodato kicked off the event, Ellen Mbuqe chaired the event, and Austin Kocher, one of TRAC’s faculty members, moderated the discussion. The panelists for the event included three of the top media FOIA experts: Kimbriell Kelly, Jason Leopold, and David McCraw.

The fast-moving discussion included stories about why the panelists started using FOIA in their journalism, practical aspects of making FOIA requests a part of journalists’ toolbox, and the value of building strategic relationships with government FOIA officers.

Kelly described how she got started in FOIA at the local level by trying to find information about chlorine levels in local pools and feeling shut out. But she persevered and encouraged others to stay determined. “It’s my FOIA failures that have led to my FOIA successes. It’s like sharpening a tool,” Kelly said. She encouraged journalists to exercise their FOIA skills regularly like training for a marathon and to map out the records custodians on their regular news beat.

McCraw illustrated the power of FOIA through his role in helping the New York Times obtain access to COVID-19 data from the Center for Disease Control. Through this FOIA success, the New York Times was able to show that the pandemic was having a disproportionate impact on communities of color. He encouraged the audience to become experts on the records they want: “Rather than put in a general request, learn specifics about the information they have. Go outside the box, be creative.”

Leopold Leopold encouraged journalists to view FOIA requests like any other investigative story and to treat records custodians as sources. “FOIA is painstaking work, but it pays to invest the time to do it well,” he said. Leopold, whose recent work includes requesting documents related to the insurrection at the Capitol Building on January 6, emphasized the challenges of working with the government to get records and described FOIA as “a never-ending battle,” but followed up with “to be honest, I truly enjoy the battle.”

The panel discussion about FOIA emerged from TRAC’s research through the FOIA Project on the use of FOIA litigation by the news media over the past 20 years. The report titled “When FOIA Goes to Court: 20 Years of Freedom of Information Act Litigation by News Organizations and Reporters” found that the news media have become powerful players in the world of government transparency and accountability.

A video recording of the event can be found here.

About the Panelists

Kimbriell Kelly is Washington Bureau chief at the Los Angeles Times. She was previously a reporter in the investigative unit at The Washington Post and was part of the team that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for documenting the number of fatal police-involved shootings. Her 2016 series on housing disparities in Prince George’s County won a Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. Before she joined The Post, her reporting on mortgage lending sparked a lawsuit that resulted in an $8.7 billion settlement with Countrywide Financial and led to a $335 million discriminatory housing settlement between Countrywide and the U.S. Justice Department, the nation’s largest fair-lending settlement.

Jason Leopold is an Emmy Award-nominated investigative reporter on the BuzzFeed News investigations team and a member of the reporting team that was named a 2018 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. Leopold was one of the lead reporters on BuzzFeed News’ groundbreaking FinCEN Files investigation. His FOIA work has been profiled by dozens of radio, television, and print outlets, including a 2015 front-page story in The New York Times. Politico referred to Leopold as “perhaps the most prolific Freedom of Information requester.” In 2016, he was awarded the FOI award from Investigative Reporters & Editors and was inducted into the National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame by the Newseum Institute.

David McCraw is senior vice president and deputy general counsel for The New York Times. He is the author of “Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts” (St. Martin’s 2019), a first-person account of the legal battles that helped shape The Times’s coverage of Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, national security and the rise of political partisanship in America. In addition to advising the newsroom on libel and other legal issues, McCraw is one of the nation’s most prolific litigators of Freedom of Information cases and oversees international security for Times journalists working in high-risk areas.

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