Access 2009 - FOIA 101 panel



by Megan Rhyne

Though the Freedom of Information Act takes up pages and pages and pages in the Virginia Code, the speakers on a panel at VCOG's fall conference agreed that the act is as much about relationships as it is about procedure.

Led by McGregor McCance (pictured at right), managing editor of The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, panelists Maria Everett (FOI Advisory Council executive director), Chris Graham (Augusta Free Press editor and publisher) and Lee Wolverton (The (Waynesboro) News Virginian editor) shared anecdotes and strategies to getting records using FOIA.

Wolverton noted that for journalists, it's often more important to get as much of a story as possible before having to resort to FOIA. McCance noted, too, how he sometimes urges reporters to break up FOIA requests into smaller parts instead of waiting to write a story until they get a big mass of records. Stories based on the smaller requests often lead to more records and more stories.

Graham lamented how some government employees feel territorial about the records in their position and how some feel personally attacked when someone requests those records.

Everett said she had the same feeling of reluctance to turn over records the first time her office was sent a FOIA request for the names of people who came to her FOIA "road show" training sessions. Everett said she felt an initial urge to protect the attendees, knowing that the requester would likely use their contact information to send them commercial solicitations.

"But, I looked outside and the American flag was still flying," she said. "And in America, capitalism is king." Anyone who receives a commercial solication is entitled to disregard it, and some may even appreciate receiving the offer.

VCOG Executive Director Megan Rhyne, and board member Nancy Kent Smith, news director of WWBT in Richmond, reminded the panelists of how a citizen's use of FOIA can be different.

"Time. Scope. Familiarity. Leverage," said Rhyne. "These are differences citizens face when trying to use FOIA.

A reporter has time to track down records and file FOIA requests because it is a part of his or her job, Rhyne explained, while citizens often have to make time outside their work and family obligations to pursue FOIA requests.

And citizens don't always understand the way their government is structured, either, like a reporter on the local government beat might, which sometimes makes simply finding the right office to file a FOIA request difficult.

As for scope, the press often is looking for big-picture and trend stories, while citizens often want something very narrow and of specific importance to themselves.

Finally, the press has some leverage when it comes to FOIA because the press has the opportunity to publish stories about a possible refusal to turn records over. Citizen-bloggers have some of that same leverage, but their audiences are so much smaller.