Citizen Journalists: Get the Government Records You Need

Washington, D.C.“The Citizen Journalist’s Guide to Open Government,” an extensive multimedia e-learning module to help new media makers understand how to obtain public records and get into public meetings, launched today on the Knight Citizen News Network (www.kcnn.org).

The guide features a unique interactive map that tells citizens how they can locate open-government information on each of the 50 state Web sites. Easy-to-find information on either the Governor’s or State Attorney General’s Web site gets a thumbs-up ranking. Hard-to-find information earns a thumbs down.

Users can:

  • Obtain local, state and federal government records.
  • Appeal when a records request is denied.
  • Take steps if they are excluded from a meeting.
  • Learn what’s allowed in their state.
  • Understand access to court proceedings.
  • Link to more information.

“As more and more everyday people cover local news and information, this guide gives them a unique road map to resources and information that traditional journalists use every day,” says Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab, which administers the Knight Citizen News Network (KCNN) with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. J-Lab is a center of American University’s School of Communication.

“Information is a core need of communities in a democracy. This module will help new media makers obtain vital government information citizens need to make informed decisions in their own best interest,” says Gary Kebbel, journalism program director at Knight Foundation.

Geanne Rosenberg, a lawyer and the founding chair of Baruch College’s new undergraduate Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions, produced the module for J-Lab. It includes input and video interviews from top media law experts around the country.

“With newspapers nationwide slashing reporting staff, there is a greater need than ever for citizen journalists and the public to understand and exercise rights of access to government records, meetings and courts,” Rosenberg says. “By doing so, they can help shed light on government activities and hold public officials accountable.”

In addition to the interactive map and video interviews from freedom-of-information experts, the site also includes quizzes, animations, a blog and other content. The blog allows site users to ask experts for help and share their experiences. Rosenberg says that governors, attorneys general and other state officials who are dissatisfied with their state’s ranking should write her to request a reevaluation. 

Rosenberg also wrote KCNN’s “Top Ten Rules for Limiting Legal Risk” and co-authored Poynter’s News University’s “Online Media Law: The Basics for Bloggers and Other Online Publishers.”

Collaborating on the project were CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and Professor Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

“This indispensable site puts the FOI community a click away from the resources in each state, and empowers citizens with the information they need to make information requests under state FOI laws,” Davis says. “It is also a real inspiration to see so many people involved in this vital issue.”

More about J-Lab: J-Lab helps news organizations and citizens use digital technologies to develop new ways for people to participate in public life. It also administers the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism, the McCormick New Media Women Entrepreneurs initiative (www.newmediawomen.org) and the New Voices citizen-media startup program (www.j-newvoices.org).

About AU’s School of Communication: American University’s School of Communication is a laboratory for professional education, communication research and innovative production across the fields of journalism, film and media arts, and public communication. The school’s academic programs emphasize traditional skills and values while anticipating new technologies, new opportunities and new audiences.

About Baruch College: Baruch College, a senior college of the City University of New York, is located in Manhattan. The new Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions was created in July 2008 within Baruch’s Mildred and George Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. Baruch College has more than 15,500 students from some 160 countries. To learn about Baruch College, visit http://www.baruch.cuny.edu.

About the Knight Foundation: The Knight Foundation promotes journalism excellence worldwide and invests in the vitality of the U.S. communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950 the foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance journalism quality and freedom of expression. The Knight Foundation focuses on ideas and projects that create transformational change. To learn more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.