Journalism students' class project makes impact on proposed Taser legislation

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Investigative work of University of North Texas journalism students has reached Austin.

Last year, students in the Distributed Reporting Project in the UNT Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism investigated and published stories about law enforcement's use of Tasers, or stun guns.

Rep. Lon Burnam recently filed legislation that proposes limiting police officers' use of Tasers, and Burnam said the work of UNT students helped him prepare the proposal. State lawmakers are expected to address the issue during this legislative session.

"The work of the students at the University of North Texas to compile information from around the state about Tasers was extremely helpful to me in preparing the legislation I filed to limit Taser usage," Burnam said. "I am working on several more bills surrounding Tasers and expect that this issue will continue to be an important one around the Capitol this session. The students at UNT deserve much credit for gathering this vital information."

The students' stories, which were published last spring in the Fort Worth Weekly, examined how non-lethal weapons such as Tasers have been linked to at least nine deaths in Texas.

"This effort on the part of Rep. Burnam's office is one result of the hard investigative journalism work, led by Dan Malone, in the Mayborn Distributed Reporting Project," said Dr. Mitch Land, director of the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at UNT. "I can't tell you how proud I am that our students have been involved, for several years now, in reporting projects that are fair, balanced and meaningful and that sometimes lead to positive change."

The project was a collaborative effort with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas' Light of Day Project, as well as with students from the University of Texas at Arlington and Tarleton State University. The students used templates created by lawyers of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas to file open records requests with all 254 sheriff's offices in Texas and hundreds of police chiefs in the state. The documents that they received about the use of non-lethal weapons and the death of prisoners in law enforcement custody were then archived at http://mayborninstitute.unt.edu under the "Distributed Reporting Project" page. Media organizations are welcome to browse the documents for information related to their readers and audiences.

Reyna Gobel, a UNT student pursuing a master's degree in journalism, started working on the project in fall 2005 and contributed to a bylined story about the investigation in a March 2006 issue of the Fort Worth Weekly.

"There's nothing that feels better than knowing you did something good - seeing an injustice and being able to bring awareness to it," she said. "What you do as a reporter means something, and you may actually affect someone's life, or a lot of people's lives."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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