Freedom of the Press Foundation is launching @FOIAFeed today, a new project that aims to automatically find and surface reporting that uses the Freedom of Information Act or other public records laws to obtain source material.
@FOIAFeed is a Twitter bot that reads stories as they are published from over a dozen major news organizations, and posts links and excerpts to Twitter whenever it finds a relevant article. In our experience so far, the bot turns up new and important stories nearly every day. You can follow @FOIAFeed here.
There’s no doubt that the FOIA process is cumbersome, and in some ways, badly broken. But investigative journalism that digs into primary source documents obtained through public records laws is interesting and substantial work, and we like to shine a spotlight on that reporting.
@FOIAFeed's results show that public records laws enable that kind of investigation across a broad cross-section of subjects. In just the last few days, it has posted stories about the political rise of certain career officials in the Trump administration, links between campaign contributions and sting operations against men who patronize sex workers, and apparent age discrimination among employees at tech giant IBM.
Public records as a through-line between this diverse array of stories may not be obvious, but we hope that people interested in the mechanics of journalism will get some value out of seeing these stories compiled together.
Beyond that, we have two major goals for the @FOIAFeed project. One is to inspire journalists to see what their peers are doing with public records laws, and to hopefully find ways to push the envelope even further. We've heard from journalists that the world of FOIA requests can seem insular and intimidating, not least because of inadequacies in the law. Requests get ignored, while others take years and come back almost completely censored, like this recent Miami Herald story that was just picked up by @FOIAFeed:
Despite its flaws, FOIA can produce powerful results. We hope that a steady stream of examples can help reduce the threshold for journalists to dive in (or even for FOIA pros to pick up new ideas).
A second goal is to underscore the importance of public records laws in investigative reporting. Highlighting the tools that journalists use to report their stories can help advocates for those tools, both when there is opportunity to expand and improve them (as with the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, for example) or when there is a need to defend them (as with the recent "cyber-security" exemption added to Michigan's public records law, or the successful push to prevent a gutting of the Washington Public Records Act).
Currently, @FOIAFeed is monitoring news stories from the Associated Press, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Buzzfeed News, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, CNN, Gizmodo, ProPublica, The Intercept, and the Marshall Project. It relies on RSS feeds from those organizations, and we plan to expand in the coming days to cover more outlets that engage in public records reporting and offer such feeds.
Additionally, we will soon be releasing the underlying source code that powers @FOIAFeed, and we hope it will be useful to other potential bot developers. Our bot focuses on public records laws, but as we develop and generalize it, we think it could be used as a broader public news alert system on any topic you’d like.