RCFP Introduces a Wiki for FOIA

Any good reporter knows that Wikipedia is not a reliable source. You can look up basic information, check the references, and confirm the facts for yourself. But you cannot embarrass yourself by telling a colleague that you found something out from Wikipedia. You’re a journalist and you have to pretend you know everything.

Now, there’s a new wiki made with journalists, among others, in mind. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launched the FOIA Wiki on Monday.

The site is a collaborative platform where people can read and contribute information about the Freedom of Information Act. Although in its beta phase, the site is already preloaded with dozens of pages about everything from how to make a FOIA request to disclosure exemptions to FOIA litigation.

“By providing a common space for everyone to come together, the hope is that all of us will benefit from these individual pieces of knowledge that people can type right into the FOIA Wiki,” said Adam Marshall, the RCFP’s litigation attorney – a position sponsored by the Knight Foundation.

The FOIA Wiki is not necessarily out to provide new information. There are numerous free resources that aim to help journalists navigate the convoluted web that makes up the federal public record law, among them the RCFP. Just like other wikis, the FOIA Wiki prompts contributors to provide references for their additions and changes. The wiki also provides links to outside guides and resources.

“We thought it would be a really great way to help the guides that are out there on FOIA evolve,” Marshall, who led the wiki project, told MediaFile. “There’s some stuff out there, especially in FOIA, that just changes quickly. We might not have the ability to republish a whole guide every time a case changes.”

That’s where the FOIA Wiki comes in. Contributors can update its contents whenever there is a new development. Since FOIA is a piece of legislation, its nature can change rapidly. A court case involving FOIA can set new precedent around the law, and organizations like the RCFP cannot always make immediate updates to their resources.

The FOIA Wiki is as much a guide for lawyers as it is for journalists. Much of the already published content is all about the legalese that attorneys for news entities have to deal with in FOIA-related cases.

Wikis exist for virtually any topic that draws broad interest: Star Wars, cars, cameras, PC gaming – just to name a few. Personally, I have spent more than a healthy amount of time on the Back to the Future wiki. The point is to be a one-stop-shop for all information on the topic and to allow as many people as possible to bring in what they know.

“I know that there are people out there who have deep, insightful things to say about FOIA, but I don’t know them. I don’t know who they are and I don’t know where they are,” Marshall said. “As long as they know where the FOIA Wiki is, they can contribute, and then we all benefit from that.”

FOIA is not a catch-all law for public records in the United States. It applies only to federal agencies, so every state has its own version. While the FOIA Wiki is not a venue for information on state public records laws, RCFP does have its own guides for every state.

The RCFP partnered with other investigative reporting and free press advocates to put out some of the wiki’s native info. For example, MuckRock and FOIA Mapper display their real time stats about federal agencies’ average wait time and success rates for FOIA requests. And the FOIA Project displays recent FOIA court cases involving the agencies. Did you know that the FBI’s average FOIA response time is 123 days and that its most recent case is Clemente v. FBI, et al? Now you do.

Marshall hopes the FOIA Wiki becomes a go-to resource for anyone who wants to know more about FOIA or wants to share what they know.

“I do hope people change it and double check stuff and verify and add to it,” he said. “Even if someone has one small piece of information, those individual contributions will add up and really make this something special.”

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