Emerson College

Putting FOIA to Work: Using Freedom of Information Act Requests to Engage Communities in Locally Relevant Reporting

Emerson College is one of the 2018 winners of the Challenge Fund. See all the winners.


  • Paul Mihailidis, Associate Professor, Journalism, Emerson College
  • Michael Morisy, Co-founder and Chief Executive, MuckRock
  • Chris Faraone, Editorial Director, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism
  • Eric Gordon, Professor, Visual Media Arts, Emerson College
  • Catherine D’Ignazio, Assistant Professor, Journalism, Emerson College
  • Johnny Richardson, Lead Developer, Engagement Lab
  • Adam Gamwell, Faculty Member and Design Anthropologist, Emerson College

Describe your project

Traditionally, freedom of information has been considered journalistic sausage-making: critical, complex components best kept out of view. This project prototypes new forms of making FOIA more engaging and accessible to students, journalists, and the public through original reporting, participatory projects, and visualizations. We will test if journalists are more effective when working with readers to seek information, parse documents, and distribute results in new ways. The project will not only publish original reporting that highlights public records, but build a playbook for showcasing the value of transparency laws — while cultivating the skills necessary to use those laws effectively.

View the project at MakeFOIA.work

What is your experiment?

Journalism and Civic Media students at Emerson will participate in a partnered studio course where they will work alongside MuckRock and BINJ. Our team will design an inquiry and reporting process that uses the FOIA request to connect community stakeholders to journalists, and results in a series of local stories that are distributed through outlets that are affiliated with BINJ. This will include regional weeklies like DigBoston and the Spanish-language weekly El Planeta. In the design studio, BINJ and MuckRock reporters will host workshops with Emerson journalism students to learn about FOIA and local reporting, and our team at Emerson will deliver workshops on data-driven journalism and data visualization, focused on creative reporting approaches with FOIA documents.

We will invite community members to our workshops in the design studio to build strong engagement between community members and local journalists. We will publish our reporting through the MuckRock platform, as well as national and local partners of BINJ. Both organizations report regularly on local and state issues, with a focus on social justice, democracy, and transparency. A special section on their sites will be devoted to this project, where local reporting for this project will be published. Topics will be decided with the local communities we convene, but we plan to focus on state contracts and their impact on local communities. We will also document our process and publish research that investigates how we approach sourcing local problems, filing FOIA requests, and working with local communities.

2019 update: We managed to use FOIA documents to anchored a data-driven, community-engaged journalism project, and used our courses to design local engagement mechanisms at our community workshops. We have pivoted as needed, such as selecting the topic of gun appropriations in the state of Massachusetts and specific Boston-based communities for the project. These choices shifted our outreach to the communities, and presented some challenges for requesting FOIA data (gun sales is a sensitive topic!). We were able to attain data, and the process went according to our schedule.

Take a look at the progress Emerson College has made on its project here. The FOIA project also helped support a multipart collaboration series on weapons use and procurement in Massachusetts and developed a participatory design guide PDF [download].

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

We anticipate impacts for local journalism and journalism education on two fronts. First, we will see a locally reported series that uses FOIA to investigate issues that impact communities. These types of stories are increasingly rare, though if this experiment works, we believe more local journalists will see how to use FOIA requests in powerful and creative ways, especially as BINJ and MuckRock have relationships with hundreds of newsrooms around the country. The process we build will show how to leverage requests and documents to better connect journalists and communities, and inspire better use of public data for local journalism. Second, our reporting will illuminate sensitive issues, and in doing so will be using creative data visualizations and strong community engagement in the reporting process. We anticipate that such reporting will have a strong impact in Massachusetts, as our participating journalists and distribution channels have significant reach.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Our project re-imagines FOIA not just as a way to get source material for important local reporting, but as a visible process that invites the public to engage and understand how that reporting is done — and how anyone can use and benefit from the laws. We believe that by experimenting with new ways for journalists to showcase their public records work, they can build trust with local communities while at the same time empowering audiences to assist in making investigative work more effective, efficient, and engaging. This will be achieved whether through allowing readers to suggest and file “crowdsourced” public records requests, helping analyze results, or simply by training the local community in how to use FOIA on their own while also encouraging them to share the most interesting results.

We want to help citizens see their voice and ability to participate as impactful. And we want to use tools that help local reporters, and journalism students, better communicate the information found through FOIA to the public. To do this, we are going to embed FOIA requests in a process where community stakeholders, and journalists, work together to identify problems, file FOIA requests, and use data gleaned from successful FOIA requests to report on local problems. The process developed for our project will be available for local journalism organizations and reporters around the country. It will serve as a model for public records culture that can be more inclusive, dynamic, and accessible.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

At Emerson, we will initiate a new pedagogy in the form of a design studio that focuses on real world problems and innovative journalism processes and practices. We will establish ongoing partnerships with MuckRock and BINJ, which we can use with new cohorts of journalism students. We also believe that this pedagogy can scale with new partners, communities and organizations beyond the ones that are involved in this project. We would love to see other universities in Boston and beyond adopt our project and process for their needs. MuckRock will be able to implement new creative processes that help their users better engage with the FOIA process, and design more usable outcomes with the requests themselves. BINJ will have more resources, tools, and connections to communities for investigative local reporting.

2019 update: Our collaboration with MuckRock and BINJ has been great. In the fall of 2018, we had weekly partner meetings, where we updated the classwork, reporting projects, and process. We had a collaborative Slack channel where all partners and professors were sharing information, updates, and other relevant resources. MuckRock and BINJ have activated their communities to help with the workshops, and the BINJ journalists have been working with students closely, after the semester, to edit and finalize their stories for publication in local media.