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Citizen Journalists: Get the Government Records You Need

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.

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 a Governor’s or a State Attorney General’s Web site gets a thumbs-up ranking. Hard-to-find information earns a thumbs-down.

Module users can click on a state to:

  •     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 roadmap to resources and information that traditional journalists use every day,” said 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.

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 coauthored 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 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.”