Inside Public Integrity

Published — July 22, 2019

Center for Public Integrity boosts FOIA knowledge with Wikipedia edit-a-thon


What do Wikipedia and journalism have in common? For one, a goal to increase public knowledge.

That’s what inspired last week’s Wikipedia “Edit-A-Thon” at the Center for Public Integrity, where a team of our journalists — including lawyer Peter Smith — clustered around a conference room table with Wikipedia editors to share details about a topic we’re well-versed in: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Wikimedia strategist Andrew Lih kickstarted the two-hour session, highlighting a neutral point of view and verifiability as values championed by the free online encyclopedia.

Participants in the editing session sifted through Wikipedia’s FOIA article, scanning for accuracy and completeness. They tweaked and tightened, correcting facts about the man behind the Act (Rep. John Moss) and cementing credibility by adding in references.

Journalists from the Center for Public Integrity and editors from Wikipedia scan through Wikipedia’s FOIA article to scan for any errors. (Kristine Villanueva/Center for Public Integrity)

The Center is a leading newsroom when it comes to FOIAs. Last year, the FOIA Project — a research organization based at Syracuse University — ranked us third among reporters and news organizations filing FOIA lawsuits, behind only The New York Times’ 55 lawsuits and Buzzfeed senior investigative reporter Jason Leopold’s 46.

The 26 FOIA lawsuits that the Center filed and fought from 2000 through last year came at the experienced hands of the Center’s research editor, Peter Smith.

Smith, a lawyer, joined the Center in 1999, half by accident. He started as a research associate, fact-checking one of the Center’s books, but stayed on past the end of the project. When a reporter came to him asking for help with a FOIA lawsuit, he thought to himself, “I think I could figure out how to do this.”

Smith’s first FOIA suit proved successful, yielding documents originally denied by the Department of Energy that revealed connections between former Vice President Al Gore and a lucrative oil field sale.

Smith’s FOIA-lawsuit tally is now up to 29. He estimates that the journalists working at the Center send hundreds of requests each year. Among the stories that have emerged from this pursuit of information: the efforts of a sanctioned Russian bank to court Washington elites and allegations of mass invasions of privacy along the border.

He gave a condensed version of filing a FOIA lawsuit: “It’s basically, ‘We asked for it, the agency didn’t give it to us; you should order them to give it to us.’”

A healthy regimen of FOIA requests — and sometimes subsequent lawsuits — makes for good investigative reporting. But the FOIA process isn’t quick. It can take months, even years.

(Kristine Villanueva/Center for Public Integrity)

And not every newsroom the size of the Center, with a staff of just under 30 reporters and editors, has the option of bringing a lawsuit. Larger institutions tend to have greater access to FOIA lawyers.

But times are changing: Last year, FOIA filings by news organizations rose above 100 per year for the first time. This wave of lawsuits began to rise around 2013 and has continued to grow since. Thus far during the Trump presidency, media organizations have filed an average of 4.2 FOIA lawsuits, compared to 2.4 under Barack Obama and 1.5 under George W. Bush — a sign that the fight for government information is growing. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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