Why freedom of information matters: Takeaways from the 2016 FOIA Fest


Panelists at FOIA Fest 2016 from left to right: Attorney Matt Topic, James Kalven of the Invisible Institute, independent journalist Brandon Smith and moderator Mick Dumke of the Chicago Sun Times. 

By Marc Filippino

Describe your ideal Saturday morning. If you said digging through public records and figuring out ways to challenge police for dashboard videos, then maybe next year consider going to FOIA Fest.

FOIA, an acronym for the Freedom of Information Act, is celebrating 50 years of aiding journalists, lawyers and, yes, everyday citizens fighting for access to documents that they have every right to see. On March 12 at Loyola University,  FOIA Fest hosted the keynote panel “How independent journalists, attorneys uncovered alleged police misconduct through FOIA.”

The panelist were Brandon Smith, an independent journalist who filed his own FOIA to get the Chicago Police Department to release the dashcam video that capture the death of black teenager Laquan McDonald; civil rights lawyer Matt Topic, who helped  Smith craft a lawsuit against CPD; and James Kalven of the Invisible Institute who also lobbied for the video to be released in December.

The  Laquan McDonald story made national headlines. After hearing Topic and Smith’s lawsuit, a judge ordered the Chicago Police department to release the video that showed McDonald being shot 16 times by former police officer Jason Van Dyke.

The panelists talked about their difficulties with filing FOIA and the pushback they get from FOIA offices, especially when trying to get the McDonald video.Their message was clear: FOIA offices need to be better.

They said many FOIA offices they come across are ineffective, partly because they are extremely underfunded and understaffed. Smith said if he had his way, he would want legislators to make FOIA offices the top priority in government budget so they can better serve the people.

Kalven agreed, but pointed out if government offices made these documents and videos public to begin with, there wouldn’t be a need for departments to process FOIA requests, minimizing costs and time dramatically.

But there are some things FOIA requesters can do to get the information they’re looking for. Topic said to always be aggressive. People working the FOIA office are always prone to push off deadlines and Topic said they will ask for extension after extension. Don’t let them get ask for more than two extensions, Topic recommended. Anything beyond that is excessive.

“In the Laquan McDonald case, they weren’t making any progress. They just kept asking for more time,” Topic said. “There was no point to agreeing to extensions.”

The panelists also encouraged FOIA fighters to be smart and thorough. Topic said one of the best things you can do is become an expert on the procedures and the policies of any office your asking for information from. That way you know the specifics of what you want when putting in a request.

And Smith suggested that when writing your FOIA request use the phrase, “documents suffice by to show…” By including that as a preface, your FOIA will be all encompassing of any record that is even remotely related to the information you might be looking for.

This was just a small part of FOIA Fest 2016, but the impact was enormous. Whether you write restaurant reviews or report on the Boston Red Sox, you should familiarize yourself with FOIA policies. At some point it could take your reporting to the next level.

Marc Filippino is the outgoing president of SPJ DePaul. Feel free to reach out to him at marcfilippino@gmail.com




January 20th Meeting Agenda

Agenda                                                                                                                                               January 20th 2016 meeting                                                                                                              LPCS 314A 5:30 p.m.

  1. Rivet and Tribune tours

-gathering place and transit

  1. Patricia Callahan visit
  1. Diversity qualifications
  1. Region 5 planning and finances
  1. Next year’s leadership
  1. SPJ Excellence awards

-talking with other media outlets

-Sigma Delta Chi Awards



Storify: Students come out to celebrate Free Speech Week

The DePaul SPJ Free Speech Wall was a success thanks to everyone who came out! The tweet below is just one of the many, so make sure to check out our Storify of the event!


Society of Professional Journalists 10/22 meeting

                           Society of Professional Journalists 10/22 meeting                                                            5 p.m. Lincoln Park Student Center Room 220


1a. Introduction of new members                                                                                     -Purpose outlining of meeting

1b. New business                                                                                                               -New ideas members would like to discuss                                                                         -Member goals                                                                                                                     -Current events

2. Discussion of this year’s freedom wall                                                                           -Successes, Improvements                                                                                                  -Freedom wall schedule for tomorrow

3. First Amendment March                                                                                                   -Attendance                                                                                                                        -DePaul presence (Twitter, Facebook)

4. Future events                                                                                                                  -Chapter requirements                                                                                                           -Target dates                                                                                                                       -Possible speakers

5. Set date and time for next meeting

SPJ needs to be more inclusive to its newcomers. Here’s why.

A counted vote was taken during a debate over whether SPJ should change its name. (Marc Filippino photo)

A counted vote was taken during a debate over whether SPJ should change its name. (Marc Filippino photo)

By Marc Filippino, SPJ DePaul president

Would the Society of Professional Journalists by any other name be just as sweet?

We might never know. But there was a clear takeaway from my first SPJ national conference: the organization needs to be more inclusive of its newer members

The cracks in the system really widened during the most debated resolution: should we change our name from “The Society of Professional Journalists,” to “The Society for Professional Journalism”?

Every resolution up until that point had been noncontroversial items.

But the name change, proposed by Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky, had a few issues, and the process behind it was also flawed.

Resolution wording

Koretzky’s proposed name change was taken seriously. It’s a big deal to change a title that’s stood for decades, is why resolutions are no place for jokes or hyperbole.

Koretzky put in his resolution that his idea to change the name would “result in much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments (from SPJ voting members)” and that “this change is inevitable or the society will go down permanently.”

The wording of the resolution as it appeared on the app.

The wording of the resolution as it appeared on the app.

This sentence gave the opposition a chance to criticize it, and anyone on the fence about the name change, a reason to treat the proposal with little serious consideration.

Koretzky’s bill wasn’t the only one with jokes in it. The farewell to outgoing president Dana Neutz had some inside jokes regarding her dog Jelly Bean (people went as far as to correct the AP Style and grammar within the joke).

I get it. Jokes are fun. They give everyone a chance to loosen their ties. But inside jokes about the president’s dog, or how the bid for a name change is considered an annoyance, are exclusionary. Newcomers to SPJ don’t have background knowledge to understand this humor, which means college and graduate students who are coming attending for first time, like my executive board and myself, inherently feel left out.

This results in the alienation of a key demographic. If we want new members and consider growing a priority we should handle these sessions seriously.

Access to information

While this resolution was accessible on the EIJ app, it wasn’t included in the hand out that every member received when they entered the room to vote.

That means that, if you are new and unless you were looking on the app, it’s very likely the vote was the first time you’ve even heard of a potential name change.

It was news to me, and it was news to our chapter’s voting member, DePaul SPJ faculty adviser Amy Merrick.

Later in the discussion we were told there were studies and data produced over the potential name change, which would be key in making a decision over such a serious resolution. But no one had immediate access to the data, and nobody knew where it was or how to find it.

How can we be expected to make an informed decision if we aren’t informed?

Many delegates wanted to vote on the matter this year, but in the end, voting members decided to postpone any more discussion about the name change until EIJ 2016, but only by a handful of votes.

If we are truly a progressive organization that wants to include fresh faces and young members, we need to do a better job making everyone feel welcome. The entire weekend at the SPJ Conference I felt like  I was part of a community. Once the bureaucracy started, though, I felt like an outsider looking in.

Despite whether SPJ decides to change its name or not, we should consider changing the ways we do business.

That means allowing voting and nonvoting members to speak, having all the information readily available, and using clear, concise and thoughtful language when we are writing bylaws.

As journalists, we demand a higher standard from the government we cover, especially when it’s catering to the majority.

We should not only adhere to that higher standard, but also set the bar for everyone else.


Got thoughts on this story? Great. Want to join SPJ/ONA DePaul? Even better. Email us at spjonadepaul@gmail.com

#EIJ15: 15 Jaw-droppingly Cool Online Tools

By Mariah Woelfel, SPJ DePaul treasurer/secretary

A photographer, a videographer, an investigative reporter and a design assistant walk into a bar. She sits down and orders a drink.

That, my friend, is a bad joke, but a presentation at the annual SPJ Excellence in Journalism conference this past weekend had me feeling like all of those things in one.

In his hour-long presentation titled “15 Jaw-droppingly Cool Online Tools,” Al Tompkins, of the Poynter Institute, presented seemingly basic technology that we have all longed for, for way too long.20150919_105906

It was the type of presentation that makes you want to text your editor (which I did) and say “Holy crap. This is awesome. Learning so much” (which I also did). The best part? All of the tools are free.

Of the 15 that Tompkins shared, I’ve chosen a few of my favorites to share with you. If you’re intrigued, keep a look out for a potential future event where we might just share the rest. If you’re not intrigued, please reevaluate.


VoiceBase is a free transcription program that will take a variety of different audio files and transcribe it word for word. Tompkins tested it out on an NPR podcast and it was pretty impressive. Although you can’t depend on this for an exact translation—Iraq in the podcast read “a rock” in the text—with the expectation that you need to perform minor editing, this tool could be a huge timesaver.


ThingLink takes a still image and gives you the ability to create tags that, once hovered over, have corresponding, customizable information windows. I’ve already used this one myself. The only downfall is that you need to upgrade to have any sort of formatting and style option, but for basic links, titles, or small amounts of information, it works well.


Canva is an online site gives even the most beginner of designers (like the people who default to stick figures when asked to draw anything) the ability to create quick graphics, primarily for social media posts, banners and flyers.

Google Street View

Google Street View allows users to give their viewers a 360 view of an area. It’s a downloadable app that prompts you to photograph an entire surrounding area and then stitches each image together for you.

You’re welcome.


Got thoughts on this story? Great. Want to join SPJ/ONA DePaul? Even better. Email us at spjonadepaul@gmail.com