Public records at your fingertips

By ALEX FRUIN

Ever since our generation can remember, just about every bit of information could be at our fingertips in a matter of seconds thanks to personal computers. Our reports on Google proved this point further — there’s really not much that cannot be found online, thanks to the extensive supply of Internet databases and other web-based programs. In most American homes, it is rare to see an updated city phone book as even comprehensive reports like the Yellow and White pages are found primarily online. This makes life drastically different for the average media consumer and it has shifted the way that investigative journalists gather their information.

Perhaps one of the most important tools for a journalist is the government website for the county from which he or she is reporting. Here in South Florida, the Miami-Dade government Website is a crucial source for finding documents of all kinds. Any reporter with a beat that deals with the local government should turn to this site first to find any answers regarding the times or locations of government meetings or officials. With elections coming up in less than two months, the many topics on the government websites will be of great use to any journalist covering Miami-Dade County. Outside of election coverage or even political beat reporting, the Website contains a vast amount of information that is very important when getting background information on a new policy or bill that is up for discussion.

Yet, the most important tool for local background research is the website of the county clerk. This page links visitors directly to thousands of government files — from civil and criminal court cases to marriage licenses — any public files a reporter may need for research purposes. This online system can be easily used from anywhere with internet access, compared to just a few years ago when journalists spent hours completing background research within the government offices  in downtown Miami. A seemingly simple story can quickly become an investigative piece with the additional information that can be acquired through the site.

Whether a reporter needs basic contact information for a local government official or an in-depth look into the background of a convicted criminal offender, it is crucial that a journalist find the appropriate websites to do so in each market that he or she reports from. These county clerk Websites not only save hours compared to the sifting through paperwork of the past, but can also turn up results in public records that would typically have not been looked for previously.

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