More than two dozen civic activists, students and professional journalists attended a Citizen Journalism Boot Camp at IUPUI on March 20. The daylong training program, ICOG’s way of marking the annual national observance of Sunshine Week, was filled with speakers on topics ranging from the nuts and bolts of reporting to how to start a blog and add multimedia elements to keep it lively. ICOG President Keith Robinson filed this report about the event.


So-called citizen journalists are changing journalism and in some ways redefining it by getting involved in the issues of their communities rather than objectively observing and reporting the news, a leading thinker in the journalism reform movement said.


Some are so different from the traditional news media that they do not want to be identified as a journalist because of the connotation of objectivity and detachment that comes with it, said Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based J-Lab: the Institute for Interactive Journalism. Schaffer herself prefers to call them “citizen media makers,” who report news through “active participation rather than active observation.”


“You’re really engaged in a much different enterprise than just gathering the facts and publishing them somewhere,” said Schaffer, keynote speaker Saturday during the Indiana Coalition for Open Government’s daylong workshop on citizen journalism. The audience at IUPUI was composed largely of bloggers and students interested in citizen journalism. Some newspaper and broadcast journalists also attended.


Schaffer said the “citizen media makers” fill gaps left by the mainstream media, such as by reporting on intensely local issues in their neighborhoods. They often unabashedly push their agenda for change, leaving no doubt about where they stand on an issue.


“They don’t feel that they have to hide under a barrel,” she said. “They know their community.”


Schaffer, a former business editor and a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Philadelphia Inquirer, noted that some independent Web sites dedicated to reporting on only one subject of specialized interest can provide more coverage of that topic than a newspaper or broadcast news operation, which report on a variety of topics for general audiences. One is The Notebook, a Web site that carries news only about the Philadelphia public school system.


Other sites such as California Watch produce stories based on their own, independent investigations.


Schaffer said there is “genuine journalism” on such sites built on a citizen journalism model.


“You have a very robust environment right now,” she told the audience. “It’s very exciting.”


Schaffer had three pieces of advice for citizen journalists:
  • Stay focused on your cause and don’t branch out. “Identify your need and stick with it.”
  • Reward your contributors. If you can’t pay them, understand that even “a pat on the back” can go a long way.
  • Provide stories that matter. “Collect stories that have an impact in your community.”

A panel of lawyers who specialize in media law offered practical advice on how citizen journalists can obtain public records and avoid lawsuits alleging defamation or copyright infringement.

While some government records must be made available to the public, Jan Carroll of the Barnes & Thornburg law firm said obtaining them often is an exercise in frustration because of delaying tactics some officials use.


If denied access to a public record, the requester can file a complaint with the state’s public access counselor, who would issue a non-binding opinion on whether the document should be released. If that fails, the next step would be to file a lawsuit to get the document, a time-consuming and often expensive option for many.


Sometimes, finding someone on the inside who is sympathetic can be the most efficient approach, Carroll said.


“My best advice is to try to find a leak,” she said. “Try all the angles before you take it to court because it will take quite a lot of time and money.”


Steve Badger of the Bose McKinney & Evans Litigation Group offered several “myths” about defamation law, including that all journalists are protected from disclosing their sources. That privilege, Badger said, applies only to some journalists, such as those with newspapers of general circulation and broadcasters.


“Be careful what you promise your sources,” he said. “You may not be able to guarantee their confidentiality.”


A common misconception is that all information on the Internet is free and can be used in the public domain, said Dick Goehler with the Frost Brown Todd law firm. While law allows for “fair use” of copyright information, he said it balances “the creator’s rights” with the First Amendment rights of others wanting to use the material.


The amount used, for instance, cannot be more than what is necessary to report the point of the original material; that means avoid using all of it and even the “heart” of it, he said.


Goehler said those using copyright material produced by someone else should consider that they would expect others to follow the rules when using their copyright material.


“Copyright is a two-way street,” he said.


Other presenters at the workshop:
  • Brant Houston, holder of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting and who teaches investigative and advanced reporting in the Department of Journalism at the University of Illinois College of Media. He led discussion on basic research and backgrounding, including where to find sources for information online.
  • Three members of The Indianapolis Star’s Star Watch investigative team: Mark Alesia, Tim Evans and Heather Gillers. They gave tips on how to generate story ideas, develop sources and collect documents and data.
  • John Strauss, journalism teacher at Ball State University. He showed how to use the latest (and inexpensive) tools in multimedia storytelling, including audio and video.
  • Pat Andrews of the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhoods and the Decatur Township Civic Council; Bil Browning, co-owner of the new media and online activism consulting firm Bilerico Media; and Erik Deckers, vice president of operations and creative services for Pro Blog Service. They showed how to start a blog and keep it going with news of specific interest.

For more on ICOG’s Boot Camp, check out Sunshine Week tweets about the event. Also, here’s an interesting take from a blogger who attended.