WBUR’s digital content and data producer, Ally Jarmanning, joined us last Friday at MuckRock’s Slack Channel to discuss her latest efforts to create an open Google Doc where journalists and experts in the court system can recommend resources and tips to each other.
Streamlining the process
The concept of the document began when Jarmanning grew frustrated with the variance of and lack of information about state courts. Could you access the files online - or go in person? Were docket numbers easily accessible? She didn’t know, and chances are, if one is not a crime reporter from that state, one doesn’t know either.
The Google doc is broken down by state and court type - Municipal, Superior, and Appeals courts. It’s a great resource for journalists who are beginning to cover crime, who are veteran crime reporters in their state and are moving, for reporters seeking court documents in another state, or for small newsrooms with scarce resources. The Google doc, in its most basic assessment, offers us the ABCs of courts. In its most advanced interpretation, it can offer reporters critical assets needed to nail down important details.
If you are looking for a Massachusetts docket number, search for all indictments in your target time frame. Also, do not ignore attorney motions or footnotes - sometimes the devil is in the details!
Following up is key: A few of us resonated with Jarmanning admiring Todd Wallack of the Boston Globe’s persistence with requests.
Never underestimate the power of a nice clerk or [public information officer]. “Sometimes they’ll send you what you need if you ask nicely.I mean, that SHOULDN’T be the way it works … having to rely on a clerk having a good day … but alas,” she said.
Teamwork makes the dream work
The document also encourages reporters who want to work as resources for other reporters to list their name and contact information.
Jarmanning added: “One thing about covering courts, especially across state lines, is how much we all don’t know. There’s no way to be an expert in every state court system, so asking for help (either through this doc, or in person) is key.”
Currently, all 50 states have information - some more than others - except: Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Utah. To see the doc and add your tips and resources, click here.
Jarmanning said she encourages the Google doc to be shared far and wide - not just reporters, but experts, public information officers, anyone who can help demystify the courts systems.
Join us this Friday
Our FOIA Slack Chats are a place where anyone can ask a FOIA question and anyone can answer, and sometimes we have experts with us who give great advice and often offer help after the chat to anyone with lingering questions.
Image via Wikimedia Commons