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Getting Started: Six Steps to Become a Citizen Watchdog

So you’re on board with the mission of citizen journalism and government transparency?!  Great, so are we. But what’s next? We get that question all the time.

To provide you with a complete answer, we’ve put together six simple steps to help get you started as a citizen watchdog.
Of course, you and I know that being an astute reporter or writer takes time to learn and develop.  But we’ve put together some basic principles to help you get started.

  1. Develop A Personal Brand
  2. Become an Expert on Policy Issues
  3. Learn Your Local and State Government
  4. Commit To Accuracy
  5. Earn Credibility and Authority
  6. Start Writing and Reporting

1. Develop a Brand (Decide what kind of watchdog you want to be)
That sounds like a fancy marketing term, but really all it means is that you should spend some time thinking about what kind of watchdog you want to be. Some examples: The education watchdog who attends every school board meeting, the eagle eye auditor who analyzes every state audit  released, the flip camera man (or woman!) who catches everything on tape, or maybe the open records expert who regularly  requests data from government agencies.

If you’re unsure of what your brand should be, start by answering these questions:

  • What gets your blood boiling? What local issues ignite frustration or passion in you?
  • Is there a common theme in articles you read or re-post on Facebook and Twitter?
  • Where do you want to see the most improvement in your community?
  • Have you written to your congressman, state representative or municipal leaders? If so, what was the issue?

ACTION ITEM: Draft a mission statement or tagline that sums up what you are all about.  For example, if reducing government waste and examining line-item budgets is your niche, your tagline could be “Making every tax dollar count,” or “Keeping Ohio On a Budget.”  The important thing is that you pick something your readers can identify with you and your cause.

2.      Become an Expert on the Issues (Do your homework!)

Next, you will need to become an expert. Great authors and journalists will often tell you to write about what you know. If you have a connection to a local issue, you will have an easier time relating to your audience. You can better answer the reader’s question, “Why should I care about this issue?” because you already do care.

Start by reading local blogs and news sites to stay informed on important issues affecting local citizens. Next, find a policy institute in your state that outlines key legislative issues from a taxpayer’s perspective. The State Policy Network (SPN) is a good resource: http://www.spn.org/

ACTION ITEM: Check out these three helpful online resources:

Sunshine Review (http://sunshinereview.org/)
You can find information on your state budget, government salaries, House Expenditure Reports, etc

State Budget Solutions http://www.statebudgetsolutions.org/
A guide to state financial operations

 Ballotpedia (http://ballotpedia.org/)
An online encyclopedia of state politics, which includes information on elections, state legislature, and ballot measures

3.      Learn Your State and Local Government (All politics is LOCAL!)
Don’t spend your time covering what is happening in Washington, DC, if you live in Texarkana unless it has a direct impact on your community or state.  There are hundreds of national capitol reporters waiting to scoop you on the latest federal legislation or the president’s new job proposal. But good state and local reporters in your community are lacking due to significant cuts in the journalism industry. This provides you with a unique opportunity to make a real difference being a watchdog right where you are.

So start by becoming an expert on your community. Sure you may know a little bit about everything.  But what would you want someone to know if a new family moved to your neighborhood?

ACTION ITEM: Answer the following questions to get your thoughts flowing and help develop a profile for your community.

  • How is the school system?  How do students’ test scores compare with the
    national average? What is the true cost per student?
  • How are the property taxes compared to neighboring communities? Have
    they gone up or down recently?
  • Are there any recurring special elections? How often do they take place? What about state ballot initiatives?
  • Are there any controversial local ordinances?
  • How well are public resources like parks and libraries taken care of?
  • What costs are hidden and deferred in the annual budget?

4.      Commit To Accuracy (Practice makes perfect)
The profession of journalism is based on a relentless pursuit of the facts. If one of your sources makes an accusation, it is your job to call the accused and get his side of the story. If someone references a statistic or percentage in an interview, it is your responsibility to confirm that figure before publishing it.

Newspapers and publications earn a trust with the American people by being right. They double and triple check their words to ensure they say what they mean. They do not flippantly post a story just to scoop another publication. And in the rare occasion when a reporter does get something wrong, he or she has the integrity to print a correction.

The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity is guided by the Code of Ethics outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists. Our obligation is to that code and most importantly, the public, which relies upon us and every journalist across the nation to provide comprehensive information so they can make an educated decision or form an honest opinion.

ACTION ITEM: Go to http://www.apstylebook.com/ right now and sign up for a subscription to the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. Their online database is searchable and easy to use on mobile devices.

5.      Earn Credibility and Authority (R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to you!)
Credibility is more easily lost than gained.  The Associated Press, for example, hires hundreds of copy editors and fact checkers to protect its reputation as a champion of objectivism and accuracy. The President of the United States has a full press staff to ensure that his background knowledge and talking points on any given topic are carefully crafted to be defensible.

We live in a culture of “gotch-yas.” Opponents gravitate to your mistakes, no matter how small, and actively seek them out to discredit you. There is an even higher level of scrutiny in the online world where photos, tweets and status updates can be misinterpreted or taken out of context. This doesn’t mean you should censor your thoughts or water down your message. But you should carefully consider everything you post.

Don’t give these naysayers an excuse to discount your work. Fifteen extra minutes of copyediting and proofreading can save you a major headache down the road. Thirty minutes of research before walking into a public meeting will arm you with information that will give you credibility. If you are making an impact, you will always be criticized.  But don’t let it be about the quality of your work.

6.      Start Writing and Reporting (Get connected on Watchdog Wire)
Now that you know how to get started, put your skills into action here on Watchdog Wire- an online news network where citizen watchdogs like you can connect with other like-minded people. We encourage watchdogs to post original content and cover local issues like town hall meetings, public spending, or even local regulations. If you are uncomfortable or unsure about writing a story, you can also report local news tips to the Watchdog Wire team and we will assign someone to follow up. We also have a great team who can help promote your content and sharpen your writing skills. Don’t hesitate to e-mail us at Info@WatchdogWire.com

Sign up on http://watchdogwire.com/get-involved/ today and start holding your elected officials accountable!


Mary Ellen Beatty

Director of the Citizen Watchdog program. Contact me at MaryEllen@citizenwatchdog.com

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