Citizens can engage in journalism, too

Right now, many of the nation’s major newspapers have run away from enterprise journalism, citing a lack of resources. How ironic, considering we now have more information at our immediate disposal than at any other time in recorded history.

That is why they call it the Information Age.

So, this week we’re going to look at information sources that can be highly useful to citizen journalists who are committed to serving their communities. Of course, we’ll look at them from the perspective of my home state, Iowa, but many of the same resources are available in nearly every state.

For a healthy listing of resources for journalists, visit this link.


Federal Government

The U.S. federal government’s public records law is comprised in the Freedom of Information Act. Sadly, the act doesn’t have a lot of teeth in it, and government agencies seem to know that, so compliance is far from perfect.


Local Government

In Iowa, “local government” includes cities, counties, and local school districts. The best way to know what is going on at those levels of government is to physically attend meetings, or to show up and request information face-to-face.

Iowa’s “sunshine laws” are contained in chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. They are purposely written to be easily interpreted by both government officials, as well as the general public. And, when ambiguity exists — and there is a lot of that — the intent of the law is to assume openness.

In other words, if the law doesn’t prohibit public access to information, it is assumed to be public information. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the information you are looking for. In those cases, it’s always good to just walk up to City Hall and ask for it.

One important rule to remember: you never have to tell a public official who you are, or even why you need the information, in order to expect compliance. Requests don’t have to be made in writing, but sometimes it’s helpful, especially if your request is somewhat complicated.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office website provides a number of useful tips and points of law to consider.

Iowa cities, particularly in light of recent budget woes, generally don’t provide a lot of public information online. But, there is a little bit of useful information you can find on the Internet. In Iowa, all public notices must be published in a local newspaper of general distribution, but you may also find many of those records online at, a website maintained by the Iowa Newspaper Association.


State Government

The State of Iowa is arguably one of the most transparent in the U.S., but that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket endorsement of every governmental agency. And, sometimes, documents that arguably would seem public in nature have been deemed confidential.

Like local government, access to state government records is governed by chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. But, other chapters of the code will supersede those provisions of Iowa law. If a government official says information is confidential, ask him or her to specify what provision of Iowa law makes the information protected from public scrutiny.

Some important pieces of information that are deemed public information in Iowa include: public employee salaries, expense reports, and tax returns; governmental bodies’ budgets, budget amendments, and itemized monthly expenses; voter registration information; driver’s license applications; concealed weapons permit holders; and governmental building inspection reports.


Useful Websites

There are a number of very useful websites you can research for good story ideas. Here are just a few of the best sites I have used to generate quality enterprise projects.

Department of Inspections & Appeals: visit this website to find out about inspections of healthcare facilities, restaurant inspections, and inspections of amusement park rides and elevators.

Department of Natural Resources: visit this website to find out about air quality inspections, beach monitoring reports, a database of contaminated sites in the state, current confined animal feeding operation permits, and literally thousands of other important pieces of information.

Department of Education: visit this website to find out about No Child Left Behind annual reports, building maintenance and inspection reports, enrollment and projections, area education agency annual progress reports, comprehensive school improvement plans, student achievement data, and thousands of other data collections.

Department of Corrections: visit this website to find out the status of those currently incarcerated in the state penal system, or to look up data on annual performance reports, as well as comprehensive long-range plans for expansion of corrections facilities in the state.

Judicial Department: visit this website to find out about current and pending litigation before the Iowa Supreme Court, as well as criminal and civil proceedings in the state’s district court system.

General Assembly: visit this website to stay up to date on the state legislature. You can research bills that have been submitted, as well as current Iowa Code. The fiscal bureau also provides information about state spending and current and projected budget information.

This shouldn’t be construed as a comprehensive listing of useful government websites, but they are certainly some of the best for developing useful news articles. Beyond these, one of the most useful websites for information is the State Data Center of Iowa website.