Magazine article The Quill

Turning the Numbers into News

Magazine article The Quill

Turning the Numbers into News

Article excerpt

Here's how numbers from the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project Web site can be turned into a news story. The topic: access to government e-mail and voice records. Reporters can add background to stories about how government leaders and courts across the nation grapple with policies and legislation to guide the increasing use of e-mail, voice mail and instant messaging.

Here are examples of three news pegs:

A Virginia judge ruled in December 2002 that the Fredericksburg City Council violated the state's access laws by selecting a library commission appointee via e-mail. That same month, Sherborn, Mass., selectmen agreed to place all their e-mail in a public file at City Hall after residents complained about a behind-the-scenes e-mail exchange in September. The e-mail discussion overturned a decision made in an open meeting. And in March, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission issued a draft ruling telling officials that e-mail and voice mail are public records that must be retained and made accessible to the public.

A look at the Web site would show that most state governments have inadequate rules on official e-mail that may limit public access to e-mail records. A related press release provides more details.

Journalists could determine whether their state is one of the 45 that don't mention e-mail specifically in their public records laws. In 37 of those, the statutes don't directly mention e-mail, but more general statutory language and court opinions may make it possible for the public to gain access to these records.

In eight states - Massachusetts, Alabama, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Utah - experts said laws without e-mail provisions may preclude most citizen access. Project panelists gave these eight states "nearly dark" ratings primarily because their laws make no mention of e-mail and lack other provisions that would encourage access. …

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