For journalists covering government, access to the right public records can be the difference between a non-story and a hard-hitting, impactful investigation.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law signed by Richard Nixon in 1966 that is now shorthand for a wide range of records disclosure rights that give the public insight into the workings of national, state, and local government agencies.
News organizations, scholars, and public interest groups routinely use FOIA and corresponding state and local sunshine laws to uncover information related to issues such as public health and safety, schools, and government finances.
Last month, the Chicago Headline Club hosted its 10th annual FOIA Fest conference, a yearly summit of all things FOIA.
The annually sold-out event brings together more than 300 reporters across all career stages, plus community organizers and everyday residents, to learn how to use public records effectively and bolster their investigations.
The Driehaus Foundation has supported the Chicago Headline Club since 2005 and FOIA Fest since 2021.
This year, attendees explored topics such as "A deep dive into FOIA statutes" (with Driehaus Foundation grantees Injustice Watch and the Better Government Association), "Investigating LBGTQ+ issues with public records" (with grantees ProPublica and the Chicago Reader), and issue-related panels including the environment, housing and segregation (with grantee City Bureau), health care (with ProPublica and WBEZ) and the justice system (with Injustice Watch, the Chicago Reader, and the Better Government Association).
And the Invisible Institute brought the team behind the Pulitzer-nominated "Somebody" podcast to share tips on turning document-heavy stories into compelling audio.
Also back this year was the FOIA Fest Boot Camp, a two-week mentorship program that pairs early career reporters with veteran journalists who support them through a FOIA-driven project.
FOIA Fest is where records-seekers can learn as "Chicago's best journalists break down their investigations, from the initial spark, to cultivating sources and using FOIA to uncover wrongdoing and neglect," says the Chicago Headline Club's Amanda Vinicky. "FOIA Fest was flush with tips, insight and inspiration."
In addition to FOIA Fest, the Driehaus Foundation supports the Chicago Headline Club's annual Watchdog grant, a $2,500 investigative reporting grant aimed at helping Chicago area journalists, and especially journalists without the backing of a major media organization, cover the costs related an investigation. This grant helps FOIA Fest attendees put their knowledge to work on tomorrow's next big story.
This year's Watchdog Fund applications are due March 31, 2022. See the Chicago Headline Club for additional details and information on how to apply.