Public records are not only a treasure trove of story ideas, but also they offer reporters a way to make a routine story stand out. Records can provide the context and perspective the audience needs to fully understand the importance or impact of a story.
Michael Morisy works for MuckRock.com, a web service that helps reporters file public records requests, track those requests and then share the data.
“So far we have helped file more than 700 requests,” says Morisy. This week, multiple requests were made for surveillance or arrest data related to “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy Seattle.” Another request involves state documentation of tornado damage in western Massachusetts. The most viewed documents on MuckRock right now involve a list of the websites blocked from internal Air Force internet access as a result of the Wikileaks incident.
If you prefer to file your own requests, Morisy has three simple rules:
1. Keep it clean, concise and simple.
2. Confirm it arrived with the right person.
3. Be polite, understanding and slightly intimidating.
Morisy says the more specific and clear you are in your request, the more likely it is you’ll get what you want. Before you send off your request, do some checking to make sure you’ve targeted the right person in the right agency. And finally, don’t be hostile or rude, but do make it clear that you expect the request to be fulfilled and will follow up if it isn’t.
“After filing, follow up regularly – perhaps every 2 weeks – sometimes just asking for status can help it be completed,” Morisy says.
Morisy also offered up a couple of sites that might help you in your hunt for government records: DocumentCloud.org — Morisy calls this “YouTube for government documents” — and GovernmentAttic.org. Both sites are searchable by keyword and filled with interesting government reports, which help you enterprise unique stories or add value to the daily turn.