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Document diving: secrets to filing access to information and privacy requests

One of the most challenging parts of being a journalist is the search for information. A lot of time is spent waiting for answers or searching for one useful nugget among piles of paper. This is particularly true for journalists who file access to information and privacy (ATIP) requests.
A reporter holds a redacted copy of the Doiron report released at a news conference by Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
One of the most challenging parts of being a journalist is the search for information. A lot of time is spent waiting for answers or searching for one useful nugget among piles of paper. This is particularly true for journalists who file access to information and privacy (ATIP) requests. In an industry that needs everything now, fast, filing ATIPs can be painfully slow.

When I was working on a documentary for The Doc Project I looked for very specific information on my grandfather. In some cases it was about finding the right keyword match, a few times I spoke with a librarian with the Library and Archives Canada. But most of the time, I found something that vaguely sounded like it would contain relevant information and hoped I would find something useful.

I contacted three Canadian journalists to talk about their strategies for filing ATIP requests and finding hard-to-find documents.

  • Dean Beeby is with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa, is a mentor and coach to other investigative journalists and produces dozens of his own stories through use of the Access to Information Act.
  • Jayme Poisson is a reporter on the Toronto Star's investigative team. She's been nominated for two National Newspaper Awards and a Canadian Association of Journalists award.
  • Colin Freeze is the national security reporter for The Globe and Mail. He has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military.

1. What barriers have you experienced filing ATIP requests?

Dean: Interestingly, probably the biggest problems journalists face is delays. When the act was passed back in the early '80s parliament said ideally you should have your documents in 30 days but that's not happening.
Dean Beeby has published four books, all of which relied on documents obtained through freedom-of-information laws. He has spoken at numerous FOI conferences and regularly gives FOI seminars to groups of journalists.

Departments can take extensions, sometimes quite long extensions up to a year or more even. So delays are an issue because we're in the news business so that's probably the biggest frustration. Typically for journalists it's a three month wait for documents so you're really investing in the future, you're investing in stories that are going to be three months down the road.

Jayme: Many. Unfortunately, the system can at times be frustrating. Just two examples: We are aware of a police report that deals with the number of Toronto Police officers who have turned off their in-car cameras. We recently requested that the police provide us with a copy of the report. Our request was rejected. Though the report deals with a vital public safety issue, we have been told that it is due to an employment provision in the Access to Information Act that access has been denied.

As well, the province recently told us we would have to pay $50,000 in search fees to access vital records that deal with people with disabilities who have been restrained in government care.

Colin: There is a tendency to over-classify information, particularly in the national security realm. For some departments, seven specific terms that are fundamental to what they do are redacted or have been redacted. That can make it difficult to even frame an ATIP request, given that you don't even necessarily know the right language to employ. It can also lead to over broad requests that are deemed to lead to prohibitive search times and search fees.

The key is to learn the vernacular of your target department beforehand, get a read on its command structure, and its own internal review mechanisms, as well as how it corresponds with its political and bureaucratic bosses. If you know that going in, it makes things a lot easier.

2. How did you overcome it?

Jayme:​ On another request my colleague Jesse McLean and I were trying to get police disciplinary records from the Peel region police force. Our access request was denied.
In 2015, Jayme Poisson was part of team that won the Sydney Hillman Foundation award for public service journalism for reporting on sexual assault in Canada. In 2014, she was part of a team that won a Michener award for the Star's investigation into Mayor Rob Ford.

We appealed the request to Ontario's information commissioner and the police union stepped in and filed an injunction to try to stop us from getting the records. The injunction didn't work and we eventually got the records, though it took us nearly a year of fighting for them.

Dean: One of the best ways to overcome the delay problem is to do interviews once the documents arrive in order to freshen the story. Bureaucrats and politicians can update the piece, bringing it into the present. The documents provide background and insight into an issue, and make you a sharp, intelligent interviewer. Interview subjects are often inclined to respond positively to someone who has done their homework, and has the goods in hand.

And of course, some stories are new simply because no one has ever reported the information previously. Journalists should not get caught by the assumption that if it happened three months ago, it's not news. Unreported stories about fraud, misspending, poor decision making, etc. are still news to Canadians.

Colin: Well, to use one example, in 2012 I was curious as to how electronic spying agency known as Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSE) leverages "metadata" — bulk collected phone logs and internet logs — to do its job of gathering electronic intelligence for the government of Canada. At that time, the term metadata was recently used publicly in a watchdog agency's report. The term had been considered classified before.

Bonus Audio

The author, Angela Scappatura, speaks with CBC's Dean Beeby, an expert on filing access to information and privacy requests.

One of the most challenging parts of being a journalist is the search for information. Dean Beeby is with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa, and coaches other journalists on the use of the Access to Information Act. Read the full post on our blog. 8:01

This gave me one lever. There was one other.

If you read the laws governing CSE, you see the agency is given broad latitude to do its work away from judicial or legislative scrutiny, but needs a federal minister to authorize its programs, at least in broad strokes. So, knowing that these so-called "ministerial authorizations" and "ministerial directives" existed, I requested them and all the correspondence related to them for a number of years. I also broke the language of the requests into nearly identically worded requests for separate calendar years, so that the overall document trail in any given year would not be too overwhelming for the ATIP analyst to comply with. (As opposed to, say, processing a 10 year period at once.)

This shotgun approach in a word, worked. We reaped a document known as "the CSE metadata ministerial directive" which was a pretty good find in its day. Though it was highly redacted, it positioned us well to report on CSE several months later when the Edward Snowden leaks highlighted the indiscriminate nature of such spying. We didn't know what forms the spying took before the leaks, but we had insights into it broad legal underpinnings.

3. Can you offer two or three pieces of advice for journalists filing ATIPs or searching for hard-to-find documents?

Colin: Be granular as possible during your initial request. Think of an ATIP analyst as like a robot who needs specific, logical and direct tasking orders to be effective. That's not to say they are robots. Do follow up with your ATIP analyst to find out whether the request works as worded. Some are very helpful in improving them.
Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services and the judiciary.

Follow up your ATIPs with more ATIPs — what documents did your initial response generate that might be worth following up on? That you didn't know exists? Do the documents you've reaped so far tell the story or just the start of a story?

Don't reinvent the wheel. Watch what other people are filing for and "piggyback" on those requests.

Jayme:​ I would say first to try to find out as much about the records you are asking for as possible. Make a few calls before filing your request to ensure you are asking for the right thing and can accurately describe it.

Then, organization and staying on top of your request. My colleague Michael Robinson keeps an excel spreadsheet of all his requests, all his communication with access officers and deadlines so he knows exactly when to follow up. It's a great system that helps you keep on track.

Dean: I think one important piece of advice is don't give up. You will fail, you will fail often. The other thing to remember is you have to file often and regularly. You can't simply put all your hopes into a request based on a story you're really interested in telling then wait three months for a response because more often than not that response is going to be useless to you.

I file five a day. Even if you're filing one or two a week at least you've kept up the flow so that two or three months down the road you have a stream of paper landing on your desk. And many of those envelopes are going to have stories that you can tell. It's tenacity, persistence, filing frequently as often as you can and I think just don't give up. It's in government's interest that you become disheartened and dispirited and that's not what journalists are about. You've got to keep digging.

Some answers have been edited for length.

About the author

Angela Scappatura
Angela Scappatura is a producer and presenter with CBC National Radio News. She began her journalistic career with CBC Radio covering local news in northeastern Ontario. Since then, Angela has filed stories for regional and national radio, and worked as a reporter for newspapers and magazines. Her documentary, Internment at Camp 33: unlocking one Italian-Canadian family's story, aired on The Doc Project in July, 2016.

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