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Local Spotlight: The Power Of FOIA

A local newspaper the Richmond Free Press, with a front page featuring top Virginia state officials embroiled in controversies, sits for sale in a newsstand near the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia.
A local newspaper the Richmond Free Press, with a front page featuring top Virginia state officials embroiled in controversies, sits for sale in a newsstand near the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia.

Journalism is an information business. And while some key pieces of a story may be kept in government databases or storerooms, they don’t always stay secret because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Passed in the late ’60s, FOIA requires that state and federal government agencies release unclassified, unreleased information upon request by either an organization or a private citizen. It’s a powerful tool that local and national reporters rely on to tell important stories (like these ones, compiled by ProPublica Illinois).

But the world of the FOIA request, once it is filed, is murky. Requests sometimes linger in government inboxes, going unfulfilled for months, sometimes years at a time. On occasion, a request can be fulfilled but the majority of the information held within might be blacked out. That can be an issue for those trying to make information about their communities acceptable.

What strategies are local reporters employing to inform their communities? And what are their experiences with FOIA like?

This is the first in an series called “Local Spotlight,” where we’ll cover local stories that deserve national attention. Have a suggestion about what we should feature? You know where to find us.

Copyright 2021 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.


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