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By Jason Stverak | Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity
ALEXANDRIA – Bloggers in Oregon, watch out. That’s because this month an Oregon court ruled that bloggers do not have same protection as the “media.”
By Jason Stverak
Friday, August 13th, 2010
By Jason Stverak
August 12, 2010
Recent articles and opinion pages have lambasted what many are calling the “watering-down of press credentials.” They claim that the more people that obtain press credentials, the less influential press credentials are to the legacy media. But, those who push to increase restrictions on press credentials are in denial of the massive decline in traditional journalism.
The statistics are staggering in the newspaper and journalism business. Every day reporters at media outlets are being laid off and resources are being cut. This is leaving entire communities without local news coverage and without the knowledge they need to be informed citizens.
Where this drastic decline is showing its repercussions is in city halls, courthouses and state capitols around the nation. For whatever reason, it seems that among the first beats to go at newspapers are state and local government reporters. With the decreasing media presence, there are fewer journalists working to keep the public aware of actions of their elected officials. There are fewer watchful eyes keeping bureaucrats and elected officials accountable.
And while there is no one covering the meetings and hearings, and poring over public records, there are people forming to take on these stories. However, these non-profit reporters, citizen journalists and bloggers are often being shown the cold shoulder and being denied credentials because they don’t have a business card from a newspaper or television station.
Denying press credentials to independent, non-profit and citizen journalists who are working to get stories is doing a disservice to every news consumer. Many of these journalists are filling the void that is left when a local newspaper cuts back or closes. They do the same job that the legacy media reporters are sometimes are doing it without either a paycheck or title.
And then there’s the argument that says that press credentials only allow journalists to attend press conferences and be exposed to what officials want reporters to hear, so why need them? That answer is simple, without credentials these non-profit and citizen journalists don’t have the opportunity to ask questions of their government officials or attend important briefings that no one else is reporting.
The solution is not to open the floodgates to anyone who claims to be from “media.” A standard system in every state can allow anyone to apply for credentials and be judged solely on the content they produce. This application process must not be cost prohibitive or require ridiculous, unfeasible standards. If the journalists can prove they are, in fact, practicing journalistic skills and producing news stories for the benefit of the public, they should be granted credentials.
The current news crisis is not the fault of the American people, so they should not be forced to be ignorant of governments because traditional media cut back. The government must be held accountable. This can be done by independent reporters pursuing the stories. Restricting credentials for people practicing journalistic endeavors hurts democracy and does a disservice to all those who care about their government.
Beyond that, it shuts off a source for important stories traditional media no longer can afford to pursue.
Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a journalism non-profit organization dedicated to providing investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit FranklinCenterHQ.org.
Wednesday, June 9th, 2010
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By Jason Stverak
Thursday, February 11th, 2010
Corruption and scandal are not simply bred in D.C. — crooked politicians have to start somewhere. Gone unnoticed, scandal-plagued local politicians sometimes escalate to Congress or other federal positions.
The cure for a dishonest politician is an investigative reporter willing to allocate the time to expose the truth. However, the decline of resources at newspapers around the nation has increased the vacuum in state-based coverage. As such, newspapers around the country are curbing reporters’ ability to spend the time or money to investigate a story in addition to the daily beat they write. This growing hole in investigative journalism is now being filled by non-profit organizations that have the capacity to spend time becoming immersed in a story.
The formula for success for the non-profits is to hire straight-shooting professionals and provide them the opportunity and training to reemerge as the beat reporters from yesteryear. With local focuses, specific targets, a commitment to using highly trained and professional journalists, and a strategic approach to using and distributing resources, online non-profits are the future of journalism.
Just recently, a series of state-based watchdog groups have demonstrated that online news websites can churn out substantive investigative pieces. Jim Scarantino, the New Mexico Watchdog at the Rio Grande Foundation, found that N.M.’s lieutenant governor was utilizing tax dollars to buy Christmas cards for her political committee. Joe Jordan, a dedicated state-based reporter at NebraskaWatchdog.org, uncovered that their state’s educators were using taxpayer-funded credit cards to purchase a first-class plane tickets to China for $11,000. And it was a Watchdog in Ohio that publicized a candidate’s attempt to pay for votes among college students.
Kathy Hoekstra, a watchdog from Michigan, found herself investigating a union day-care scandal when her organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, sued Michigan’s Department of Human Services. The lawsuit stemmed from the two home day-care owners receiving a notification that they were members of a union, and that dues would be taken out of the subsidy checks they receive on behalf of low-income parents who qualify for aid. The lawsuit alleged that these home day-care owners are businesses, not government employees, and therefore it is illegal to siphon union dues from government-subsidy checks. Weeks of investigating the details of this case paid off when Kathy’s article was welcomed with open arms in all the major news outlets in Michigan, exposing this story to millions of readers.
Although many of the state-based watchdogs are local in focus, on several occasions, one watchdog’s local discovery has led to a major news story. This past November, Jim Scarantino was doing research on Recovery.gov when he noticed that a few of the congressional districts that received stimulus funding in New Mexico did not exist. The story he wrote about that obvious error prompted a watchdog in another state to look into his own state’s information. As more and more watchdogs looked into their own state’s data on recovery.gov, more congressional districts proved to be fabricated. What came to be known as the “Phantom Congressional District Scandal” lead to the discovery of more than 440 phantom congressional districts nationwide and hearings on Capitol Hill. The Colbert Report even refashioned its popular “Better Known as a District” into a new segment, “Know Your Made-Up District.”
Non-profit journalism organizations are changing the conversation in politics, the media, and for news consumers around the nation. Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade, once said that “a newspaper in every home” was the “principle support of . . . morality” in civic life. The decline of American newspapers might sadden Mr. Franklin, but the pursuit of greatness in journalism by online non-profits would without a doubt bring him pride.
— Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.
By Frank Keegan
Tuesday, October 20th, 2009
Hey, watchdog citizens: Welcome to America’s civic arena of “uninhibited, robust and wide-open ” debate on public issues. Just be careful what you say.
That’s right, self-proclaimed journalists; you wander into a trackless, dangerous swamp.
Within it information democracy growing from the fertile World Wide Web like a radiant flower has some sharp and venomous thorns. They have power to prick and poison free expression instead of enhancing it.
Go ahead; put your words out for all to read. You shall be held accountable not just in the court of public opinion but possibly in a real court, even in jail.
Citizen Media Law Project ’s “Lawsuits involving Blogs” database lists more than 100 cases.
One of those is against 53-year-old grandmother and Realtor Lyndal Harrington who spent three nights behind Texas bars in May for contempt of court in a mere libel suit involving some toss-off celebrity gossip opinion she posted on a Blog.
According to houstonbestrealty.com, Harrington said, “I just voiced my opinion. … I got into this because my business had fallen apart in this economy and it was something to do.”
More insidious is the capacity of public officials and powerful special interests to crush dissent through abuse of libel laws.
Consider Butler University administrators suing student Jess Zimmerman for criticizing them, according to Inside Higher Education.
Or Cape Cod blogger Peter Robbins who had the temerity to comment on a dredging project. He got sued. The offending comments disappeared.
If you think that is chilling, freeze on this: The Austin Statesman-American reports Police Chief Art Acevedo claims he has broad subpoena and search powers to investigate what he claims are postings of defamatory comments on public Web forums by people using others’ names.
Apparently protecting his own thin skin is the highest law enforcement priority in Austin.
It ever is thus. God forbid in a free country some grandmother would jump into celebrity gossip, a student would criticize college officials, a citizen comment on a public project or that those we empower to arrest us and use lethal force against us would be subject to our criticism.
Know this, citizen watchdogs: The worst of those from any party or persuasion who hold public power are smart, ruthless and universally deluded that they somehow are entitled to the privileges – legal and otherwise – of office.
They absolutely will abuse all powers of government ferociously to protect their turf and insulate themselves from even the slightest criticism.
You think not? No less an icon of freedom than Thomas Jefferson, while president, sued for libel all the way to the Supreme Court (he lost) and is suspected of being behind state prosecutions of criminal seditious libel.
So, if you choose to publish controversial information – as fact or opinion — impose upon yourself the highest standard not just of professional journalistic ethics, but of personal honesty and conduct: for if you actually happen to get close to serious corruption, you shall be tested.
The best preparation is to follow general ethics and practices of professional journalists. Plenty of information is on the Web, including from the American Society of News Editors and Society of Professional Journalists .
The U.S. Supreme Court allows expression that would get you fired from any newsroom in America. Professional journalists hold themselves to the highest ethical standards in history. Those standards are self-inflicted, but they are much tougher than the law requires.
Fundamentally those standards all boil down to the old city editor’s dictum: Check everything out. If your mother says she loves you, check it out. To which we now add: If she says it in an email, double check it. If she says it on the Web, triple check it.
Even “truth,” supposedly the ultimate shaky defense against defamation claims, does not protect you from the huge expense and life-disrupting impact of a lawsuit. Too often, even if you ultimately win, you lose.
Rest assured, if you actually ever stumble close to real corruption, things will get very ugly. When they do, you are on your own. Everybody backs away.
When a judge says you go to jail, you go directly to jail. When a police officer says you are under arrest, you are immediately in his power.
At that moment, you have no rights. Government power acts instantaneously. Citizen rights engage ever so slowly, if ever at all.
Most importantly if you are going to publish: Learn a little bit about journalism and the law; snuggle up to the ACLU; get some insurance.
Here are more links to help:
Frank Keegan is the Senior Editor of Watchdog.org