Archive for the ‘Open government’ Category


Need FOIA help?

Filed a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but ran into a few bumps? The Society of Professional Journalists wants to help.

We know the process can be challenging, frustrating and sometimes confusing. We also know sometimes your only option is to obtain services from an attorney. Now, help from a FOIA attorney is just an email away. Send the following information to foia@spj.org:

  • Your name
  • Your best contact information
  • Copy of your original FOIA request
  • Current status of your request
  • How we can help

Once you send the email, SPJ leaders will work with FOIA attorneys to connect you with a FOIA expert and resources to help.

The FOIA is a cornerstone of openness in our government; it compels federal agencies to yield millions of documents relating to government operations and performance. News organizations, scholars, and public interest groups use the FOIA to report information significant to public health and safety, and good governance.

SPJ hopes that by offering this resource, more journalists will be given the assistance they need to continue working as government watchdogs.

Lynn Walsh is a freelance journalist, creating content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News ProjectFollow her on Twitter or send her an email to collaborate on a possible project.

Indiana court recording remains concealed from public

The Indiana State Court of Appeals has ruled that a judge did not violate guidelines by state law or within the US Constitution that prohibited the broadcast of an audio recording during a sentencing hearing this past April.

WPTA, the ABC affiliated station in Fort Wayne, filed a motion to appeal with the Court after Huntington Circuit Judge Thomas Hakes cited a judicial conduct rule. Hakes confirmed the audio was an official record by the court but did not allow its broadcast, citing a potential citation of contempt of court.

The audio included an excerpt from the sentencing hearing of Dr. John Mathew, who pled guilty to two counts of felony sexual battery on an employee who worked at his clinic. A plea deal reduced charges from initial counts of rape, battery and sexual battery.
WPTA’s motion was supported by a coalition of groups, one of which was SPJ.

The court ruling, written by judge Patricia Riley, indicated concern on Judicial Rule 2.17, which prohibits the use of cameras or recording devices used by third parties.

“Permitting the audio of a proceeding to be broadcast to the public in general by way of any type of media, would have an intimidating impact, not only on the behavior of the witnesses and other actors — causing possible fear and reluctance to testify — but also on the openness and candidness of any trial testimony,” Riley wrote. “We perceive no difference between the effect of broadcasting a hearing ex post facto versus the contemporaneous dissemination of the proceeding.”

According to WPTA, Indiana’s lower courts bans outside recording devices, while the Court of

Appeals and the Indiana Supreme Court broadcast proceedings as they happen and archive them online.

In a telephone interview, Jonathan Shelley, news director of WPTA, said he was consulting attorneys as to whether to appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The ruling in Indiana comes a couple of days after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the public could not obtain or copy recordings made by those Court’s stenographers.

While that ruling, written by Justice Nels Peterson, does not bar court reporters from sharing recordings of court proceedings with members of the media, it gives court officials the right to turn down requests at any time, according to a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Shelley said he was not surprised by the ruling in Georgia, saying that they are working with different judges with different approaches to working with the media. Shelley adds that in Indiana there have also been differences in interpreting the release of audio of 911 calls, as city and county agencies differ on policies.

“We see varying interpretations,” Shelley said. “Some are stonewalling, some are declining, others are cooperating.”

In this case, Shelley said he was surprised that a record of the court was being subjected to a ban, as it was not a third party recording.

Shelley said that the need for transparency with the public was important. He encourages people to broaden their horizons, saying that you may not have an interest now, but you may be in a position where you have an interest in an event later.

“Something is best understood when it’s impacting someone directly,” Shelley said.
Shelley encourages journalists and news organizations also to know the laws in their area, so they can know what their up against. But Shelley encourages persistence, and says it’s possible no two circumstances can be alike.

“It allows judges and local agencies to interpret as they choose,” Shelley said. “One may put up a road block, another one may not.”

Ultimately, it is down to the access of unfiltered information, something Shelley wants to continue to promote, no matter the circumstances, in order to inform and engage audiences on issues. “Technology is only as good as the information that is available,” Shelley said.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and Freedom of Information Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

Yes, filing a lot of FOIA requests is normal and good reporting

Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman recently wrote on her blog:

“If reputable and respected journalists respond and tell me that it is perfectly normal to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, then I will stand corrected.”

And later:

“But I do believe FOIA requests should be strategic and not just a fishing expedition. That is where the disconnect seems to be.”

Her post was in response to criticism she received over a Facebook post in which she called out a local reporter for filing a lot of FOIA requests, which she characterized as a fishing expedition.

The local newspaper the Beacon-News had been seeking the dash cam footage and internal documents related to a 2016 traffic stop, where a man committed suicide after exchanging gunshots with an Aurora Police officer, according to reports. The police department released the footage on the Facebook post months after the FOIA request was made and the Illinois Attorney General’s office intervened.

Check out the Beacon- News’ coverage of its FOIA battle and Chief Ziman’s Facebook post here

Here’s SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee Chair Danielle McLean’s response to Chief Ziman’s question of whether filing FOIA requests for the sake of filing FOIA requests is normal:

Dear. Chief Ziman,

In response to your question, whether it is normal for reporters to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, the answer is yes and is a practice that is highly encouraged. It is critical for reporters to request records routinely to learn about government functions, even if the request doesn’t entail a specific record for a specific story.

For instance, reporters often put in routine requests for public officials’ emails to stay informed about their communications, police logs to monitor police activity and arrests, minutes of public meetings that had previously entered into executive session to understand decisions and discussions that occurred behind closed doors, and campaign filings to see who may be bankrolling a politician’s campaign.

There are other examples where reporters request records that might appear as “fishing” expeditions, such as requests for databases, budgets, and investigation reports. But in reality this type of activity isn’t actually fishing – it’s observing government operations. It’s seeing what the government is up to, which is the fundamental premise behind FOIA and state public record laws, as reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sincerely,
Danielle McLean
Chair
Freedom of Information Committee
Society of Professional Journalists

 

Truth is Freedom

There’s little more patriotic than seeking truth and reporting it.

The future of FOIA—hell, the future of press access of any kind—may seem murky. But hasn’t that always been the case? Lest we forget, Obama’s administration was rough on access in its own way. Acts like FOIA don’t just pass at the fancy of politicians. They are born of strife, raised by dissent, matured by demands.

But we—and FOIA—are still here. The battle to defend access and the press is fought on many fronts. Some of them send back good news. Some bad. But this week, squeezed in among much smarter messages and write-ups and op-eds from men and women much wiser than me, I want to focus on a front I believe is underestimated: People give a shit about us and about journalism again.

And sure, (the President and) people are pissed at us. But it’s much easier to confront anger than it is indifference (ask anyone in any relationship, romantic, professional, or otherwise). I’d choose an accusatory, foaming mouth, fake-news-propaganda-illuminati finger from a reader over the apathy of a non reader anyday.

The onus is on us, of course, to gently point that finger down toward the copy, and repeat the truth (as best we know it). And repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat. Again. Again. Again. Truth tends to prove a monumental value to citizens of any country, even if alt facts momentarily distract some of them.

Americans know that journalism—solid, investigative, costly, subscription/ad/donation-based, unapologetic journalism—is the only way this democracy survives. Truth is freedom because lies enable enslavement. A dark government will master its people while an illuminated government usually fails at the endeavor.

Press freedoms and unhindered channels of access may come and go, but people will always want to know how the government is handling its part of the deal, the tried and tested taxation-for-representation deal. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’ll stay.

I’m not arguing FOIA fighters should sheathe their swords, or that any journos should stop pushing or caring or spitting or scuffling. On the contrary, it’s that fight I’m counting on in my optimism. The fight itself will enable its own survival. The struggle will save the long sinking institution. Its pulse will beat stronger, its blood will flow freer, its beams will burn brighter.

So to family and friends and colleagues who have accosted me recently with the question/statement what should the media do now? I answer: The same damn thing we do every day: Commit acts of journalism.

We’re not here to seek a world in which people blindly trust the media. We don’t want that world. We want readers who question everything, especially information. That’s why we attribute and prove, explain why a source is anonymous, link to documents, submit FOIA requests. We should earn trust with every story, with every line.

Journalism isn’t about arriving at absolutes—it’s about the everlasting journey towards them. Again. And again. And again. Like captains exploiting the North Star, journalists should always reach toward truth longingly, knowing full well it’ll never actually rest within their grasp.

This Sunshine Week and in all the weeks and months and years ahead, keep shining, journos. (Most of) you are doing great, and (most of) the country is grateful for it, even if (some of) it’s being an asshole right now.

14 Death Cab for Cutie Lyrics that Are Actually About FOI

Illustration by Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 Director

In these dark times—coming out of an anti-access administration and right into a an anti-press administration—we journalists may benefit from brazenly turning our attention to less stark information.

This is one of those times.

Oregonian journo Bethany Barnes argues a 2015 indie-favorite album is about public records requests and not about love.

Maybe she’s right or maybe she’s alternatively factualizing to make her case in a post-truth sense.

I think it’s best to let you decide..

Death Cab For Cutie’s Latest Album is About Love—of FOIA

By Bethany Barnes

Death Cab For Cutie is an indie rock band known for songs that chronicle love stories fueled by cynicism and passion. So it was only a matter of time before they released an album about records requests.

I recently got around to listening to Death Cab’s latest album and I think there’s a case to be made that it’s a soulful tribute to transparency.

For starters, it’s called Kintsugi. Kintsugi, as I learned from a quick Google search, is a Japanese pottery technique used to make new art by fusing together broken pieces. Conceptually, Kintsugi is about embracing something broken to find beauty. Anyone who has filed a records request can consider themselves a practitioner of the same art form.

We know the Freedom of Information Act is both beautiful and broken. Don’t take my word for it, just read this take from the government on the matter: “FOIA Is Broken: A Report

Not that I need to convince this audience, but for proof of what’s heart-stopping about public records, consider how the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The paper’s investigation exposed how a helicopter design flaw killed 250 US servicemen.

A gem from the story behind that story, as told by Roy J. Harris Jr. in his excellent book
Pulitzer’s Gold”:

“Can you tell me about these accidents?” Thompson asked.

“No I can’t,” White responded.

“Well, what if I sent a FOIA?” the reporter followed up.

White hesitated.

“I’ve been waiting years for somebody to ask that.”

That reporting saved lives. The deadly flaw wasn’t unknown; it was just that nobody fixed it until the press got involved. Military records showed that.

Emotional stuff, public records. That’s why it makes perfect sense that Death Cab, once described as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining,” would inevitably make an entire album’s subject freedom of information.

Let’s look at the lyrical evidence:

“I don’t know why/I don’t know why/I return to the scenes of these crimes” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

You can’t stop thinking about that police brief you read the other day. You’ve got a hunch, so you file a request for the police reports.

“You’re always out of reach when I’m in pursuit/Long winded then suddenly mute”  — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

Clearly an ode to a records officer.

“And I’ve got nowhere to go except further below/So I keep digging/And it gets darker everyday/But I see no other way than just committing.” — Song: “Everything’s A Ceiling”

The point in the investigation when you start muttering to yourself, “Follow the money!”

“Zeros and ones, patterns appear/They’ll prove to all that we were here/For if there is no document/We cannot build our monument” — Song: “Binary Sea”

Obviously a conversation about why you need to talk to the IT person and not the spokesperson about exporting the database in a machine-readable format.

“And so I wait but I never seem to learn/How to capture your diminishing returns” — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

When the redactions get heavier with each subsequent request.

“You’ll never have to hear the word “no”/If you keep all your friends on the payroll/The non-disclosure pages signed/Your secret’s safe between those lines” — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

When the agency has denied your records request and you must explain why the public interest demands disclosure.

“I don’t know why, I don’t know why/I don’t know what I expect to find/Where all the news is second hand/And everything just goes on as planned” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

When the agency’s spokesperson doesn’t understand why you won’t just say which exact record you want and you sigh and say, “But I haven’t seen the records because you won’t let me see them. I can’t ask for something if I don’t know it exists. They are your records and I don’t know how you keep them. That’s why I’m asking.”

“Darling, don’t you understand/That there are no winners/Or medals hung from silken strands/To greet you at the finish/As we’re dissolving into the sea/I can only take what I can carry/As the counsel’s combing through our debris/For the treasures we never buried” — Song: “Hold No Guns”

When the spokesperson is breaking the bad news to officials that the agency’s general counsel is reviewing your records request and will soon produce damning documents.

“And there’s a dumpster in the driveway/Of all the plans that came undone” — Song: “Black Sun”

Corrupt officials have heard about your request and they’re not taking it well.

“There’s a long, slow fade/To a darkened stage/And I hear you say/’Only a fool gives it away’ — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

The agency has asserted that it is allowed to charge “reasonable fees.” The fees are not reasonable.

“Seems you finally found, finally found El Dorado/So why does it feel underwhelming, barely real?” — Song: “El Dorado”

El Dorado is a pet name for The Documents. Clearly.

“And it’s such a hard thing to do/So take all you can” — Song: “Ingene”

When you’ve negotiated to inspect the records in person so must take as many photos of them with your phone as you can because this might be your only chance.

“No room in frame/For two” — Song: “No Room in Frame”

You have the records, you’ve found proof of wrongdoing, you’ve written the story—your editor urges you to focus. It is time to cut out some hard-won details. Can’t bog down the narrative.

“So lean in close or lend an ear/There’s something brilliant bound to happen here” — Song: “Binary Sea”

The investigation is done. It’s on today’s front page. You’re at your desk and the phone rings. On the line is someone who just read your story. She’s calling to tell you you can get even more records.

Sure, maybe the album is about a romance. But I like to think Ben Gibbard, Death Cab’s frontman, is telling us about the power and poetry found in the pursuit of public records.  After all, the band’s most famous single is “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

Isn’t that what every journalist must do to shed light?


Bethany Barnes is a journalist at The Oregonian. Before taking her records requests to Portland, she spent three years in Las Vegas (Also the subject of a Death Cab song. See “Little Bribes”) and in 2016 was named Nevada’s Outstanding Journalist.

18 Ways to Fight Censoring PIOs

Over the last 20 years there’s been a surge in government offices and other employers prohibiting staff from ever speaking with journalists unless they first ask the public information officer or some person in management.

In addition to the surveillance factor that silences employees about most anything the bosses would not like, the policies often cause massive delays and officials frequently deny interview requests outright. Or they sit in on interviews or do other obstruction or manipulation.

SPJ has a good picture of this now. Carolyn Carlson of Kennesaw State University has now done seven surveys on behalf of the organization and they show a national culture interlaced with censorship. Most reporters who cover federal agencies say they must get PIO approval to interview agency employees and most say the public is not getting all the information it needs because of such restrictions. Forty percent of public agency PIOs say they block specific reporters because of “problems with their stories in the past.”

State and local, science and education reporters confirm the same kinds of problems.

Particularly chilling, most police reporters say they can rarely or never talk to a police officer without involving a PIO. And police PIOs say they must monitor interviews for reasons like, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”

What should journalists do?

Most importantly, go after the “Censorship by PIO” like the deep corruption it is. Any entity that prohibits people from communicating except when they notify the authorities is keeping information from the public. And that’s a misallocation of resources as serious as any other we investigate. It also creates an opacity that’s fertile ground for malfeasance and an unconscionable conflict of interest allowing officials to strangle investigation of their actions.

Investigate how long has it been happening in your area. Why do officials feel they have a right to do this? How often are delays and blockages happening? What about the fact that many times staff have tipped reporters off to serious issues? Are officials trying to stop that process?

Home in on one incident or series of nonresponses. Who in the food chain said a staff person could not speak? What was withheld? What were the power plays and the political motivations?

Ask why the public should trust official reasoning like, “We have to coordinate the story. We just want to know what is going on. We need to tell reporters the right person to talk to.”

Explain it to the public. It’s not “inside baseball.” It’s the public’s business. If you don’t feel you can write an unbiased news story, make it an editorial.

Explain it when it happens. Don’t just say, “XYZ agency declined to make an expert available.”  Say, “XYZ agency prohibits all employees from speaking to the press about anything unless they notify the press office. It often denies such interviews. The PIO did not explain why experts could not speak to this reporter.”

Collaborate with journalists, news organizations and journalism groups on resistance. When agencies hold press conferences or briefings have reporters take turns asking why journalists can’t speak to people in the agency without the PIO guards. And report the response.

Don’t kid yourself that your great reporting skills get you all you need to know. We have no right to take that risk. Millions of employees have been told to shut up. So chances are good some silenced staff people—including those you talked to after going through the PIO—could blow your award-winning story out of the water. Or educate you about the mind-blowing stories you don’t have a clue about.

Remember that journalists’ acquiescence to “Censorship by PIO” is just as dangerous as the worst thing it will keep covered up. For instance, the press did hundreds of stories that CDC and FDA handed out over the last couple of years. But with PIO guards on us, we didn’t get—and probably could never have gotten—the fact that there were not strong, consensus guidelines for Ebola containment in place and there was a storeroom for pathogens that hadn’t been inventoried in decades (the one that contained smallpox).

Remember that likely the biggest reason we can’t do anything about these restraints is that journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.

In the meantime, as we fight the policies, we are obliged to use all techniques possible to undermine the blockages. For that:

Rely on PIOs as little as possible. Get away from PIO and agency oversight whenever you can, including during routine reporting. Many people will say something different away from the guards. Find out for yourself who you should talk to. Analyze staff listings, hearings and meeting agendas. Ask outside source people who in the agency works on the issue. Use search engines and literature searches to pinpoint who in an agency spoke or wrote on an issue. Then study the hierarchy to understand their position in it and other people close to them you might talk to.

Contact people directly and tell them you want to talk to them, even if you have to contact the PIO also. Sometimes the internal expert will advocate for the interview.

Interview outside sources and then contact the inside source persons in hopes they will want to respond to what you know.

When you talk to a source person, even if the PIO is listening in, ask who outside the agency is working on the issue. The source person may mention an interest group or person that the agency is actually talking to.

Consider holding the source person, particularly if they are an official, responsible: “Mr. Doe did not respond to attempts to contact him.” They should be responsive even if agency cultural norm is to hide behind the PIO.

Keep a running descriptive list of responses and nonresponses and hold agency leadership and elected officials accountable. Consider keeping the list on the web.

At least occasionally, do a series of incessant follow-ups. I contacted CDC about newborn circumcision 20 times as PIOs repeatedly refused to let me talk to their experts. Then I wrote a press release about it. Let your audience know what subjects the agencies are blocking information on.

Go to obscure meetings or sessions. Speakers sometimes forget reporters could be there. If possible, sign in as a member of the public, not as press.

Regularly give agency staff every possible way to contact you.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the IRE Journal.


Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at kfoxhall@verizon.net.

If You Sue Trump, This DC Lawyer Will Help You For Free

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Mark Zaid wants to help journalists file a national security-centered FOIA request against Trump so much he’ll do it for free:

According to Zaid’s site, he’s an expert in defending “former, current, and prospective civilian federal employees, defense contractors, members of our active duty and reserve military, and journalists, particularly when they are threatened by the overshadowing spectre of national security.”

Of course, consider the risk. At this point, if you sue Trump, he may sue you back (and/or stick his tongue out at you)—or throw you in jail.

Photo by Michael Vadon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Hear It from a Journocriminal

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Let’s turn our attention to a real Georgia journalist who went to real jail for making a real public records request—really.

From the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s July 1 piece:

A North Georgia newspaper publisher was indicted on a felony charge and jailed overnight last week – for filing an open-records request.

Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason, along with his attorney Russell Stookey, were arrested on Friday and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request.

Here’s AJC’s nut graph:

Thomason was charged June 24 with making a false statement in an open-records request in which he asked for copies of checks “cashed illegally.” Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they did not get Weaver’s approval before sending subpoenas to banks where Weaver and another judge maintained accounts for office expenses. Weaver suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information on the checks.


Thomason Speaks at SPJ Region 3’s MediAtlanta

Thomason told his story at Region 3’s annual conference, dubbed MediAtlanta, on Oct. 29—you can watch the whole thing above. He’s in the center, to his left SPJ Georgia president-elect Dan Whisenhunt, to his right Kennesaw State University Professor and FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson. Video by Nydia Tisdale.

You can read SPJ Georgia board member Julius Suber’s review of the event here.

Photo above courtesy of Julius Suber.

Jailing of the Press

Big names like Amy Goodman may shout loudly enough that after soliciting national media’s attention, judges drop silly charges that critically challenge their freedom of the press. But not everyone has that kind of pull, and not everyone sees the law play in its favor.

Down in Dawson County, Ga., where less than 25,000 (mostly white) people live, committing acts of journalism can land you in jail.

Nydia Tisdale learned this after years of covering public meetings without any connection to a newspaper, just in fulfilling what she considers her calling: Citizen journalism.

SPJ Florida president, national SPJ Diversity Committee chair, and overall badass Dori Zinn has the story…


Georgia Citizen Journalist Facing Criminal Charges for Recording Public Meeting

By Dori Zinn

Nydia Tisdale showed up to record a Georgia Republican Party campaign rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville on Aug. 23, 2014.

A little bit into her recording, she was forcibly removed by a police officer, even after admitting she had received permission to be at the public gathering by one of the property owners. In the video, you can hear her crying, “Help! Help! Help!” and shouting at the officer, “Identify yourself!” and “Let go of me!” She demanded his name and badge number. He refused to give it to her. He forced her out of the public meeting area into an empty barn, bending her over a countertop and pressing his groin against her backside, leaving her with bruises and emotional distress long after her arrest.

It wouldn’t be until later, when two other officers arrive, that the officer gives Tisdale his name: Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Tony Wooten.

Tisdale was arrested and her video camera was confiscated. Later that day, she was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer, a felony. Shortly after midnight, she was released on bond and five days after that, she got her camera back.

How did she get here?

This isn’t Tisdale’s first recording. In fact, Tisdale has set up her camera for years, recording hundreds of public meetings across northern Georgia. To date, she’s been recording public meetings across the state, totaling almost 900 videos in six years.

Tisdale doesn’t even call herself a reporter. “A reporter is employed,” she says. “Once they don’t have a job, they become a journalist.”

She may have a different view of what a “reporter” is, but her work is many, many acts of journalism.

“I call myself a video journalist or citizen journalist. Really, just a single woman with a camera,” she says. “No one is dictating to me what to cover and what not to cover.”

In 2009, she was working as a property manager when there was a proposed landfill near the zoning of the property she was managing at the time.

“I was very involved in researching everything I could about the project, and I discovered over time that it wasn’t compliant with state law,” she says.

Eventually, the applicant withdrew his application, but that didn’t stop Forsyth County, where the proposal was set, from misleading the public into believing a landfill would be put there.

Tisdale went to the county meetings, speaking out against the proposal. Even after the landfill fight was over, she met with the county officials to point out all the mistakes they made, including taking advantage of the applicant, who was out tens of thousands of dollars in engineer fees, attorney fees, and paying the county.

“I’m a layperson, I don’t have a degree in this, I’m not a planner,” Tisdale says. “How come I can find these mistakes and all these people that are paid to do it can’t find these mistakes?”

Eventually, the city planner was fired. It was then that Tisdale realized sharing information from public meetings and open forums was important to her.

“With news media shrinking staff, local government isn’t being covered,” she says. “Citizen journalism fills in that gap.”

Tisdale journalism

Tisdale used to easily put 80 to 100 miles on her car a day covering a meeting. She can get around the state if she chooses, but typically stays in north Georgia. Early on, she would record three meetings a day if they were in the same location, but now she goes to about two to three meetings a week.

It’s not limited to one type of meeting, either. She’ll go to city council meetings, county commission meetings, republican and democrat meetings, citizen forums, debates, and literally anything that is open to the public that informs citizens and voters.

When she arrives at whatever meeting she’s going to, she’ll get some shots of the building or the area around where the meeting is being held. Then she’ll record the meeting in its entirety. “Gavel to gavel,” she says.

From there, she edits very little of her actual recording. She indexes her videos, so if you want to skip ahead to a certain part, it’s easy. Sometimes, if one part is more meaningful than the rest, she’ll make an excerpt of it.

“I give the full context and speech,” she says. “It’s unfiltered and without commentary.”

While Tisdale has been hired to film some public meetings, she doesn’t normally get paid. But she does have a PayPal donation option on her website, AboutForsyth.com. Journalism isn’t her primary source of income, but it occupies as much time as a full-time journalism job.

When she started attending meetings and realized they weren’t compliant with Georgia Sunshine Laws, she’d complain to the city, county, or whatever body was in charge of that meeting. Now she carries around a copy of it to every meeting she attends, sometimes handing out copies to other people.

Despite her solid six years and 900 videos, this is her first time facing jail time for recording open meetings.

What’s happening now?

Tisdale’s original 2014 charges — a misdemeanor criminal trespass and a felony obstruction of an officer — got an additional obstruction of an officer charge, this time as a misdemeanor, bringing her total to three. She was indicted on Nov. 16, 2015 in Dawson County, but not before giving an ante litem notice — an intent to sue — on Aug. 20, 2015 to everyone involved in the 2014 arrest, including: Dawson County, the Sheriff’s office, the three officers that arrested Tisdale, and Johnny and Kathy Burt of Burt’s Farm, among others.

She was formally arraigned this year on March 15 and filed her federal lawsuit against the three officers that arrested her on May 9, including Officer Tony Wooten. On Aug. 22, she made a complaint to Dawson County about Wooten’s physical abuse during her arrest and an incident report was made the next day, alleging sexual assault. Wooten resigned from the Dawson County Sherriff’s Office the same day.

In early October, Tisdale had a pre-trial motions hearing in her criminal case, but no judgment has been made.

Jail time may be pending for Tisdale, but she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“I really enjoy what I do. It’s a passion,” she says. “Any event that’s worth remembering, I usually have a camera and I record it.”


Dori Zinn is a full-time freelance journalist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her work has been featured in MoneyTalksNews.com, Realtor.com, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, South Florida Gay News, and others.

Obama White House Doesn’t Address Complaints on Its Censorship through PIOs, etc.

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This is a guest post by DC-based journalist Kathryn Foxhall.

After eight months the White House is not answering the complaints of journalism and other groups that the Obama Administration has entrenched the practice of prohibiting federal employees to speak to journalists without surveillance by public information offices, and that it often blocks them from communicating at all.

A year ago 53 national organizations sent a letter to Obama urging changes to these policies that constrict information flow. The groups also complained about agencies holding official briefings “on background,” restricting reporters from naming the officials who are talking.

In December, a delegation led by SPJ met with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and others on the issue. Despite a promise that officials would get back to SPJ, emails to Earnest and Eric Schultz, Principal Deputy Press Secretary, have gone unanswered.

“We don’t even know if President Obama has been advised of our complaint,” said Lynn Walsh, SPJ’s President-elect. “He’s spoken to press groups at least twice without mentioning it. It’s sad that after 53 organizations tell a White House that the silencing of millions of people is a hazard to the public, the Administration decides not to discuss it.”

The delegation to the White House included representatives from SPJ, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of News Editors.  They told Earnest, among other things, that these restrictions often hide things from the press and that many times when the press doesn’t know something about federal agencies, the White House itself doesn’t know.

Earnest said he thought PIOs should be coordinating the conversations and that it is part of the journalism skill set to get a person to talk even with someone else in the room.

SPJ’s Walsh said, “We still have a special plea to President Obama not to leave these controls in place. The restrictions routinely withhold information from the public.”

SPJ has sponsored seven surveys that show these restrictions have become pervasive in federal offices, state and local governments, schools and universities and other entities in many areas of the nation.

The fact that blatant information control has become a cultural norm makes it all the more important for President Obama to use his moral suasion to speak out against it and begin the change starting at the federal level, Walsh said.

The need for that is illustrated in the recent Department of Justice report showing rampant civil rights violations by the Baltimore Police Department. Just five months ago SPJ-sponsored surveys found that over half reporters covering police say they can rarely or never interview police officers without involving a police department public information officer.

Police department PIOs in the surveys said they monitor press interviews with police officers for reasons such as, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.” Half of police PIOs said there were reporters or media outlets they would not allow to speak with officers due to “problems” with the reporters’ stories in the past.

“The Justice Department report shows there can be appalling things locked in an internal culture for many years. The SPJ survey shows police departments use PIOs to actively stop things from coming out. The same is true of federal agencies and other entities that prohibit or chill communication,” said Walsh. “We are asking President Obama whether he really wants institutions to hinder the press from understanding such critical information. Eight months later, we are still waiting for his answer.”

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Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at kfoxhall@verizon.net.

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