Journalists are supposed to serve as “watchdogs” on the government. But how do they get access to the information they need to do that? In this episode, we talk to BuzzFeed lawyer Nabiha Syed about “freedom of information” laws — which are often the secret to getting government secrets.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that requires the government to hand over its records if someone asks for them. The Act applies to federal government agencies, but every state has its own laws that allow the public to access government records.
This can be a very valuable tool for journalists, or anyone trying to learn more about the inner workings of a government agency.
A government agency can, of course, deny your request if they decide that the information that you’re seeking falls into an exemption category, like information that would threaten national security, or invade someone’s privacy. (If those seem like huge and amorphous exemptions, note that it’s possible to appeal a government refusal of a FOIA request–or if that doesn’t work, sue and take the government to court over it.)
Nabiha Syed, Assistant General Counsel for BuzzFeed, is intimately familiar with this process, and talks about how vital it’s been for Buzzfeed News. As a lawyer for the media company, a large part of her job involves getting government agencies to give up information that they would rather not share–information that often ends up being crucial to BuzzFeed news stories. She sees the right of the public to access government information as an exciting First Amendment frontier.
“For the most part, the First Amendment says, ‘This is hands off, the government’s not going to be involved, you guys figure out speech.’ And then you have the First Amendment right of access, which says, ‘Yes, but also, we are going to allow you to use the law as a sword to get access to judicial proceedings, to official records…to administrative proceedings.”
Nabiha also discusses the various shortcomings of the FOIA system: the delays inherent in dealing with government bureaucracies, the flaws in the law itself, and the lack of access to information about private companies that contract with the government. But she shares her own hard-won advice for getting the information that you want, and her views on what the payoffs are for society.
“How do we at least inject the information we need into the commons, into the public square, to try and heighten the conversations we’re having? At least getting the underlying facts out there, in ways that are hopefully more authoritative than anecdote, I think would be really helpful.”
Lata Nott is the executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute.
Nabiha Syed is Assistant General Counsel for BuzzFeed.
Want to file a FOIA request? Register at ifoia.org to use their FOIA letter generator.
If you’re not sure which government agency would have the information you’re looking for, try searching with FOIA Mapper.
Want to read some of the excellent FOIA-based journalism mentioned in this podcast?
Want to pore through some government records for your own works of investigative journalism? Check out MuckRock.