Remix is a new segment of education content on MediaShift, featuring interesting and innovative journalism assignments, courses and curricula. Writers will detail their ideas and work and, where possible, provide links and materials, so other educators can adapt them in their own programs. If you’re interested in sharing your approaches to be remixed at other schools, contact education curator Katy Culver.

How do you take an innovative approach to a classic journalism assignment? For many educators, innovation means balancing aspiration with logistics. In November 2013, Canadian professor and Vancouver Sun journalist Chad Skelton posed the following teaching question on a listserv:

Putting the finishing touches on my first Data Journalism course and I’m struggling over how to structure a key assignment.

Here’s the challenge: I want to impress upon my students that good data journalism doesn’t just involve using data already publicly available but rather fighting hard to get access to never-before-seen data — either through negotiations with a government agency or sending in a Freedom of Information request.

But here’s the problem: I fear even a diligent student will have problems getting a government agency to return their calls, much less voluntarily cough up data they haven’t already made public (I find it hard and I work for a daily paper). And British Columbia’s FOI process is so slow it’s almost impossible that a student could both file a request and get something back within the four months the course will be running.

Which leaves me kind of scratching my head over how to structure their final assignment, in which they need to take a dataset and turn it into both a story and accompanying interactive map/graphic.

Skelton’s dilemma is the same one that every educator faces regarding records requests. FOI requests are an essential part of journalism training, but the process can take an awfully long time.

The Logistics

In the United States, there are statutory requirements around prompt responses to records requests. “The law requires that agencies grant or deny your request within 20 working days unless an ‘unusual circumstance”’ of a sort specifically described in the statute occurs,” writes the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Twenty working days might be a reasonable amount of time for government wheels to turn, but in classroom time it’s an eternity. Four weeks is almost a quarter of the semester.

Regulations, exclusions and timelines also vary by state. In my home state of Pennsylvania, although an agency is obligated to respond to a public records request within five days, the agency can automatically grant itself a 30-day extension depending on the scope of the request.

It’s easy to imagine how a student would feel frustrated if his grade were to depend on his ability to negotiate with the government for a data set that might or might not show up by the assignment’s due date.

A Solution

How did Chad Skelton work through the timing issue for his students?

Part of me thinks I should give them wide latitude to come up with a data journalism idea and then tell them to do everything they can to get the data they need to tell the story. But what happens if the agency says “No” and a FOI won’t work in time?

I could just tell them to go find a dataset on one of the (growing) number of local open data portals and base their story on that. But then they’re not getting any firsthand experience of trying (and maybe failing) to get data out of an agency and it limits the breadth of the data ideas they can pursue.

After wrestling with ideas for a while, Skelton came up with a compromise:

At the moment, I’ve settled on a kind of hybrid assignment: Come up with any data story idea they want, try to negotiate voluntary access to the data directly with the agency and then draft a dummy data FOI request for me to mark. But then, if they fail to get the data they want (which most probably will), try to find something on an open data portal that meets their needs or — if necessary — switch topics entirely in order to do something they can achieve with open data alone.

Resources

After the logistics and timing are worked out, professors have a vast array of online resources available to make a FOIA assignment richer. You can read more about how Skelton shaped the handouts and assignments for his course in a post he wrote for the Canadian Journalism Project. In addition, here are a few online resources that I find helpful when putting together a records request assignment:

  • The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press provides free legal advice, resources, support and advocacy to protect the First Amendment and Freedom of Information rights of journalists working in areas where U.S. law applies. Their Digital Journalist’s Legal Guide has a comprehensive section about FOIA, open records and meetings. The RCFP’s Federal Open Government Guide gives an overview of federal policies, and state-specific guides are also available.
  • Need a template for a letter to a public agency? Want to send a lot of FOIA requests? Try MuckRock or iFOIA to generate, organize, and track the requests.
  • FOIA.gov offers general information about public records as well as a spotlight page with curated data sets and documents. Students may be intrigued by the FBI file on Steve Jobs or declassified files related to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • IRE, the essential resource for investigative journalists, offers a FOIA resource center with lots of terrific links and educational materials like storypacks and tipsheets. “Getting to Yes” by Jennifer LaFleur, a presentation from IRE’s 2012 conference, is a particularly helpful resource for showing students how to negotiate common denials. Students could pair up and practice negotiating by playing the role of the reporter and the open records officer.
  • For a perspective on the dazzling array of eclectic things the government gathers data on, check out the Government Attic. From the site: “Governmentattic.org provides electronic copies of thousands of interesting Federal Government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities and fun stuff and government bloopers, they’re all here. Think of browsing this site as rummaging through the Government’s Attic — hence our name.” Pick any document and discuss: what does this historical document make you curious about in today’s world? Is there a way you could localize a story using a data set listed on the site?
  • The Art of Access and The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook are essential resources for learning to negotiate for documents and data. Try assigning a chapter on negotiating for data along with the New York Times’ coverage of aides to Governor Chris Christie who planned a shutdown of the George Washington Bridge. Discussion points: what strategies might the New York Times reporters have used to acquire the smoking-gun emails and text messages? How would you use records requests if you were covering a similar crisis locally?

If you’re an educator who has suggestions for successful FOIA assignments, please tell us in the comments.

Meredith Broussard is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Temple University. A former software developer, she teaches courses in data journalism and entrepreneurial journalism. Follow her on Twitter @merbroussard.