By Quinn White
As part of the SPJ 2020 conference, Randy Showstack–president of the Washington D.C. pro-chapter of SPJ– hosted a webinar titled ‘FOI for a cure: How to get health records and data in a pandemic.’ The webinar was led by presenter Dave Cuillier who is an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism as well as the president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The webinar included loads of information regarding public record health data and ways for journalists to access that data.
Cuillier has done plenty of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests for public records and used this webinar as a platform to share some of his expertise with the national SPJ community. In this webinar, Cuillier mentioned different websites that can be used to gather general Covid-19 data such as The Covid Tracking Project and Johns Hopkins. The need for more complex data is where FOIA requests come into play. An example of complex data mentioned by Cuillier was prison death data and how the forms filled out following each inmate death– a CJ9 form– are public record and may be requested through a FOIA. This type of data can be immensely useful for a story that may involve prison deaths related to Covid-19–two types of data that can be layered to track a trend. Cuillier mentioned that layering data can be a great way to track trends involving two different sets of data, such as the amount of deaths in a local prison and the amount of increasing or decreasing Covid-19 cases in the state the prison resides. Plenty of journalists submit FOIA request forms on a daily basis through a website called Muckrack.com. Cuillier recommended this website as an abundant archive of FOIA requests and the data retrieved through said requests. Before submitting a FOIA, Cuillier recommends looking through this website prior to ensure that the data you’re seeking isn’t already available on Muckrack.
This webinar was extremely informative and listed multiple ways for journalists to retrieve public health records and data that often isn’t displayed on the forefront. It’s important for journalists to know that many different types of records are public information and should be provided following the submission of a FOIA request. Becoming educated on the FOIA process and the legal regulations involved is a key component to getting the information you desire in a timely, accurate manner. In a time where health is emphasized daily, it’s important for journalists to know how to access public health records and data, analyze that data, and ensure that the populace is informed on the multifaceted impacts of said data; the webinar did a wonderful job of highlighting exactly that.