Chinoy / Fall 2012
This project will give you some real-world experience in
trying to get a useful database from a government agency – or trying to pry it
out of the hands of its keepers, which may turn out to be a more appropriate
description of the effort in some cases.
It is common, in fact, for government agencies in
The project includes the following essential elements and deadlines:
à Session 5 (Wednesday, Sept. 19): The assignment will be introduced and discussed in detail.
à Session 8 (Wednesday, Oct. 3): Memo 1 (one page) is due indicating your main choice for a database to pursue and your reasons for choosing it; you must also indicate two alternates. You will hear back from me about your choice either during this session or by e-mail after class. Some things to keep in mind at this point:
in mind that the database you seek must be maintained by a government agency in
§ Databases maintained by federal agencies or agencies in other states are not appropriate for this assignment.
§ Databases that are readily available for downloading from the Internet are also not acceptable for this assignment. The process of seeking the database documentation – and the database if we get that far – will require you to have contact with government officials who serve as its gatekeepers.
§ The database you are seeking must be maintained as a database in electronic form, and you must seek this database in electronic form (that is, as a data file – such as an Access file or in some other database format – rather than as a printout). Hence, once you get to the next step of this assignment, it will be important to learn quickly whether or not the database you have in mind is one that actually exists. If there is no database, you will need to consult with me about making another choice of a database to pursue for this assignment.
à Session 13 (Monday, Oct. 22): Memo 2 (one page) is due reporting on your initial efforts to get information about the database and its place in government operations. You should also report on your initial efforts to contact the keepers of the database.
§ You will maintain a written log of your contacts. This is an essential and vitally important part of this project. This log, which you will submit as part of your graded work on this assignment along with your final report, should include the following for each occasion that you reach or even attempt to reach someone for this project: the person’s full name; his or her job title; the agency for which he or she works; the location of that agency; at least enough contact information so that you can find this person again later or so that someone else reading the log could find this person again (phone number, e-mail address or both); the date and time; and a brief summary of what transpired. Some of the people you deal with – say, the receptionists or assistants who first answer the phone – may not want to give you their names, but you can always try telling them that you like to keep a record of the people with whom you speak. Your thoroughness may be appreciated. An inadequate log – especially one that does not provide enough information for someone reading the log to know precisely whom you contacted, how you contacted them, and when you contacted them – may prevent you from getting a passing grade for this assignment.
à Tuesday, Nov. 13, noon: Memo 3 (one page) is due by email as an attached Word document reporting on the status of your project (include “Memo 3” and your name in the email’s subject line). In most cases, you need to have confirmed that there is a database and contacted its keepers well before this date.
à Sessions 23, 24 & 25 (Monday, Nov. 26; Wednesday, Nov. 28; Monday, Dec. 3): You will make a verbal presentation to the class (8-10 minutes) on your project. You will also submit a 1,000-word (double-spaced) written project report, together with relevant documentation and a log of contacts with agency officials and employees. During the presentations, we will discuss your experiences and what steps might help to pry the data from reluctant gatekeepers:
à After Session 27: Even though the assignment is officially over, it is common for students who have not obtained the database they are seeking to continue working toward that goal, especially if they have in mind to use the database to prepare a news story in the next semester. Continued work on this project that is documented by the final class session with a written addendum to their data acquisition project report, including copies of related correspondence and documents, may be considered for extra credit toward a student’s grade on this assignment.
How you should represent yourself: During this assignment you will represent yourself as a student journalist. That is, the people with whom you are dealing will need to understand that while you are making this request in connection with a journalism course, you hope to eventually use the database to prepare a news story for publication, broadcast or as online news. You will not be preparing a news story for this course, but students who do obtain a database during this assignment often go on to use it in a subsequent semester while reporting a story for general circulation. If you end up writing a letter requesting the database, it must include this language:
“I am a student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and I am making this request on behalf of the Capital News Service, a news wire that is operated by the college and serves broadcast and print clients across the state of Maryland and in Washington, D.C. The records disclosed pursuant to this request will be used in the preparation of news stories for dissemination to the public.”
This language serves as a basis, too, for requesting a waiver of fees. And after doing all the work to get the database, it makes sense that you would want to take advantage of that work by using it in a story. Sometimes, a student who succeeds in getting a database decides not to use it for reporting and makes it available to another student who does want to use it. Therefore, you may not make representations to the government officials and employees with whom you are dealing that you will not publish or broadcast the information they provide. If you do not identify yourself as a student journalist – and if you leave the officials you contact with the impression that you only want this information for a course but will not use it in any other way – that would be a violation of the guidelines for this assignment. We will talk more about this issue in class. If there is any confusion about this point, contact me or bring it up in one of our class discussions.
Your grade for the project will be based on the following criteria:
o Meeting the deadline.
o Your understanding of the how and why the database is maintained and used by the agency that has it.
o Your understanding and explanation of the potential journalistic uses of the data.
o Your understanding of what you were or were not entitled to get under the public records law and the degree to which you pushed for what the law allowed you to get.
o The extent to which you worked to gather necessary information about the database, including forms, record layouts, code sheets, and examples of agency use of the data.
o Whether you got to work on this project right away and worked on it consistently.
o Whether you followed the guidelines for making data requests, for representing yourself as a student journalist and for all other aspects of the assignment.
o Whether you took advantage of the approaches to this assignment that we discussed in class or that I discussed with you individually.
o The clarity and organization of your oral presentation.
o The quality of your written report. It must be clear, engaging and professional, and it must employ AP Style.
o The quality, thoroughness and accuracy of your log.