Freedom of Information & Investigations Guide

Freedom of Information & Investigations Guide

Freedom of Information & Investigations Guide

So you want to do some investigative journalism but you’re not sure where to start? Don’t know what a Freedom of Information Request is, or want to improve your requests? 

Don’t worry, we’ve got your back! We consulted some top FOI-ers to find out both how to dig for information and how to use it in a way which won’t put your readers to sleep. Our step by step guide will get you busting cases right open. 

This is aimed mainly at student journalists in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. But, much information in this guide is applicable to almost any country with an equivalent act – and for investigations more broadly. 

If you want to practice sending FOI requests, feel free to send over your attempts to training@spajournalism for some advice/scrutiny!

Why do investigations?

Some of the most memorable news stories of all time have come as a result of investigative journalism. From Heather Brooke’s MPs expenses scandal story and Nick Davies’ News of the World phone hacking revelations, to the Edward Snowden NSA leaks at the hands of The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald – investigative journalism produces some incredible results. Where front-line reporting and receiving tips leads to the best day-to-day coverage, investigations can result in some world-shattering stories. 

Images: Pixabay; Press Gazette

At student papers, the stakes are still massive. Previous investigations by SPA member publications have led to a wide variety of stories about Universities, SUs and other bodies being caught out on their misdeeds:

Roar (KCL): ‘Consent Matters’ Matters: Only 189 students completed the consent awareness module

Falmouth Anchor (Falmouth/Exeter Penryn): Number of students suspending studies at Falmouth doubles in four years

Nouse (York): Non-operational CCTV camera spark security fears on campus

What is ‘Freedom of Information’? How do I use it?

For most of the UK, the Freedom of Information Act (2000), usually abbreviated to FOI, is a piece of legislation brought in by the government aimed at improving transparency for businesses and the government itself. An unintended side effect for us is that FOI requests are a fantastic tool for investigative journalists.

There are equivalent acts to the FOI Act (2000) in many countries around the world, which all broadly follow the same principles, but always check specifics. Most importantly for SPA publications, there are separate acts for Scotland (FoI Act, 2002) and the Republic of Ireland (FoI Act, 1997; FoI Amendment Act, 2003).

In this guide, when referring to ‘The FoI Act’, we are speaking of the 2000 Act which governs England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The FOI Act is a great way to ‘follow the money’ for an investigative piece (Image: Flickr)

When an FOI request is sent, the recipient is given 20 working days to give you the information requested. You can FOI for pretty much anything which does not breach data protection law. Here are some examples of information my student publication obtained via FOIs back when I was an undergrad:

  • Gender pay gap and other wage disparity data
  • Crime numbers for specific areas of a city
  • Accommodation spending
  • Wellbeing app spending
  • Bike thefts
  • Expenses claims

(This is by NO means an exhaustive list)

There are some exemptions to the FOI Act:

  • Charities and private enterprises cannot be FOId: it applies to public bodies only.
  • Matters of national security mean certain information is exempt from public release.
  • Information already publicly available cannot be FOId.
  • Information which breaches personal privacy cannot be obtained (including that which is about yourself***).
  • If the requested information will cost more than £450 (or £600 for central government/armed forces) to obtain, or will take more than 18 staff hours (or 24 for central government/armed forces) .

HOWEVER: do not forget that you are able to appeal these if you think there is a case to do so. More on appeals can be found in the next section of this guide.

*** in this instance, you should attempt to obtain your information via what is called a Subject Access Request (SAR).

For information regarding the environment, you may instead enact the Environmental Information Regulations (2004) to a similar effect as the FoIA. In this instance, the same principles stated for this guide come into play.

Top tips for FOIs:

Before you even send any FOIs: please, for your own sanity, make an FOI spreadsheet. Keep this to track what FOIs you have, which ones need chasing up, and which ones have yielded data so far.

How to format a an FOI request:

Dear sir/madam,
I am requesting the following information under the Freedom of Information Act (2000):

  • Data set
  • []
  • []

Yours sincerely,
Full name.

(Image: Pixabay)

Who do you send it to?

  • Look for references to Freedom of Information on their website, and you’ll probably find the organisation’s designated person. That said, any employee has a duty under FOI to answer.
  • Look at FOI directory, they may have the relevant contact for an organisation.
  • GO NATIONAL! There’s no reason not to link up with other student papers to try and make a national story: instead of just FOIing your university try doing all in one region, or even the country. These are the kinds of stories which national papers may pick up.

What to include:

  • Your real name – giving a fake name can make appeals difficult, or even impossible. However, organisations or groups can also FOI collectively.
  • A clear route of contact (email address/phone number).
  • Know what you are looking for. Do some research into the names of the types of documents/data sets you are trying to find.
  • If you are looking for change over time, try and obtain data for a few years. If possible, 5 years is a good comparison.
  • Fall-back options: if you think your request may go over the limit specify what can be cut in order to prevent total rejections.
  • Be polite! Experienced FOIers have found that being overly hostile means you are more likely to hit roadblocks and rejections.

What not to include:

  • Threats or aggressive language- this is effectively a legal document so there is little need for forcefulness.
  • Requests for data which breaches personal data protection, or that which would clearly take too long/be too expensive.
  • Requests for data which will require the recipient to fill in forms/access requests themselves. What this means is check that the contact you are FOIing will be able to access the information freely. If they have to go through other barriers, the cost and time will increase. This is usually only important for national bodies.
  • Your publication or the fact you are a journalist – you do not need to tell them why you are requesting the data unless you are appealing.

How (and to whom) to appeal:

Your first port of call is the organisation which you have sent an FOI to. If you are unhappy with the response you have received, email them requesting a review of the rejection.

If the above fails, and you still want the data, you should contact the ICO. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) adjudicates Freedom of Information. They are both an excellent source of information on FOIs and the place to go for a second appeal. In order to take the appeal further, contact the ICO stating your case and why you think it is of public interest to release the data.

If even the ICO do not take your side, you can self-represent in court. This is a last resort, and there is almost never repercussions for doing so.

The ICO is your main contact for matters of Freedom of Information (Image: ICO)

So you have the data… now what?

One of the skills which comes with data and investigative journalism is knowing what to do once the recipient gives you the documents. Here are some guidelines on managing the data and writing the story:

1. Check and double check the documents

Are the documents complete and definitely the ones you requested? If not, you may need to send a follow-up email or even another FOI request.

2. Make backups and re-format if necessary.

Sometimes, from experience, data handlers from Universities may give you too many documents, or data which is hard to scour for the important bits. Microsoft Excel (or equivalent) and databases are your friends. Place as much as possible into searchable programs and use ctrl+F (or cmd+F on Mac) to key-word search.

3. Write the story with readers and wrongdoing in mind

It’s important to always keep your readers in mind. As with many other forms of journalism, stories with a human element will engage people much more successfully. Once you have found documents or data, see if there is evidence of wrongdoing. In turn, try to find one or two examples of real, named people who this has hit.

For example:

Let’s say that your publication has FOId your University on student accommodation revenues versus student accommodation spending over five years. The data showed that one set of accommodation raked in £4,050,000 for an academic year, but only £400,000 was being reinvested in this one set of flats which were in fairly poor condition. In of itself, this is news of public interest. HOWEVER, if students who have experienced waiting times on repairs, or who are financially struggling as a result of rent increases, this becomes a far more compelling story.

The leading part of the write-up would, therefore, be that (e.g) one student waited three weeks for essential plumbing work for a flat they paid £135 a week for. So from there, you can then talk numbers to a small extent.

Similarly, a story on wellbeing services is far more impactful with a lede featuring one person’s story – and not some abstract figures.

While it can be disheartening that all of the hard work you put in to find the data, probe it, organise it and draw conclusions will not be visible to your readers – showing your conclusions and how it affects people is far more effective. In the words of one journalist we spoke to: ‘No one gives a shit about numbers’.

The process behind a story may impress other journalists, but your readers will be put off by an over-dense article.

Here are some examples of FOI requests:

Here are some basic examples. Yours may be longer and request a greater diversity of information – and that is fine. These are just to show how best to utilise the Act, and the different ways to do so.

Requesting data from a fictional University wellbeing service, after a leak regarding misconduct in its spending habits:

Dear Sir/Madam,
I am requesting the following information under the Freedom of Information Act (2000):

  1. Amount (in GBP) of funds allocated annually to the University of Didcot’s wellbeing unit between the 2014-15 academic year up until the most recent data which is available.
  2. Breakdown (in GBP) of funds spent annually by the University of Didcot’s wellbeing unit on the following between the 2014-15 academic year up until the most recent data which is available:
    • (i) Staff wages
    • (ii) Building rent to the University of Didcot
    • (iii) Staff ‘away days’
    • (iv) Staff food and drink expenses
    • (v) Staff travel expenses
    • (vi) New equipment

If the above is likely to exceed the limits of the Act due to staff time, please omit the academic years 2014-15 and/or 2015-16 and prioritise more recent data.
Please respond within 20 working days, as per the terms of the Act.
Yours sincerely,
Edd Church.

Requesting crime data from Devon and Cornwall police:

Dear Sir/Madam,
I am requesting the following information under the Freedom of Information Act (2000):

  1. The number of Public Intoxication charges where the incident occurred in the areas of the Exeter Streatham Campus, Pennsylvania (Exeter), Exeter High Street, Sidwell Street (Exeter), and Exeter Guildhall between Monday 17 September and Monday 1 October 2018.
  2. As above, but between Monday 18 September and Monday 2 October 2017.
  3. As above, but between Monday 12 September and Monday 26 September 2016.
  4. As above, but between Monday 14 September and Monday 28 September 2015.
  5. As above, but between Monday 15 September and Monday 29 September 2014.

If the date range is to exceed the limits of the Act due to staff time, please ignore bullet point five (data for 2014).
Please respond within 20 working days, as per the terms of the Act.
Yours sincerely,
Edd Church.

More guides coming soon – keep an eye out both on our Twitter and the rest of our site!

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