During many metro Atlanta and North Georgia government meetings, you can often find self-described citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale in the back with her video camera recording the proceedings.
That’s exactly what she was doing April 17, 2012 during a Cumming City Council meeting when Mayor H. Ford Gravitt asked the chief of police to remove the camera from the auditorium.
“We don’t allow filming inside of the City Hall here unless it’s specific reasons, so if you would remove the camera,” Gravitt said.
When Tisdale told the mayor about the state’s Sunshine Laws, which had been updated that same day and which give citizens the right to record open meetings, Gravitt said the matter wasn’t up for discussion. He proceeded to have Tisdale and her camera removed from the meeting.
Following the incident, Tisdale filed suit against the city, and the case was settled in 2015 when the city agreed to pay Tisdale $200,000.
This is just one obstacle Tisdale, 53, who lives in Roswell, has faced in her nearly eight years of recording meetings.
She first became interested in local government working as a property manager for a land investor. Her former boss asked her to attend a Forsyth County Planning Commission meeting when they learned a landfill was proposed on a site next to the company.
After sitting in meetings, she realized she found problems during the process and became involved in fighting the zoning, which was eventually withdrawn. From there, she was hooked.
Throughout all this, she strives for transparency, open government and citizen engagement in the local government.
“Local government is where one can have an impact,” Tisdale said. “It’s close to home and affects all of our lives as it’s where we live. There is so much coverage of the national political scene. I don’t really contribute to that. But the local scene of the city, county and state gets overlooked because a lot of newsrooms are shrinking and don’t get as much attention as they deserve.”
She calls herself a citizen advocate and citizen journalist, but said she is not the only one of her kind.
“There are other citizen journalists that do provide a service to citizens and perform acts of journalism although they may not have a journalism degree or be embedded with the mainstream media,” Tisdale said. “I’m independent and unembedded. I select what I want to cover and do it on my own terms. I don’t have a deadline, it’s self-imposed.”
Her work is a form of new media as opposed to traditional news media, she said. With the digital age and internet, one can publish articles, videos or photos online for public consumption. So this way is open to everyone.
She covers political party meetings, city councils and debates. The city of Atlanta, Forsyth County and the city of Roswell are among those recorded and documented on her “Nydeos,” as she calls them. She said she finds out about events through social media or people ask her to attend.
But without official news credentials, she has run into problems from time to time. Denying recordings is a violation of basic constitutional rights including the rights of free speech and press, Tisdale said.
“Some may not know the rights or choose to ignore them,” Tisdale said. “Who knows what’s in the minds and hearts of people violating constitutional rights. It’s disrespecting the Constitution, a citizen’s right and open government and transparency.”
In addition to the city of Cumming meeting, she’s had her fair share of controversy while trying to film. She attended a Forsyth County Republican Women’s event several years ago where she was not allowed to record and was even hit by one of the women in charge.
“It was open to the public and posted in the legal organ,” Tisdale said. “No candidates rejected me and instead they wanted me to film them. But out of fear of being physically harmed or my camera being damaged, I packed up and left in protest.”
She eventually got an apology from the woman who hit her.
“An apology was all I wanted because I feel like she not only violated me, but all the voters who would have liked to watch that video and see what the candidates have to say,” Tisdale said.
And most of the candidates she films tend to support her through positive words, monetary contributions, even supporting her during the city of Cumming hearing.
“I don’t think any of the candidates have ever not liked me recording as it’s free publicity,” Tisdale said. “It’s just as important as door knocks, campaign mailers and robot calls. People want to hear and see the candidate, not just read about them. It impacts their opinions and votes.”
She measures her success by voter turnout, but she doesn’t endorse any candidate and is often undecided going into the events.
“I want to learn about them because I don’t know who to vote for,” Tisdale said. “I figure other citizens don’t know who to vote for yet either, so let’s provide them as much information as we can to make an informed decision.”
Throughout the nearly 1,000 meetings she’s recorded, only a handful have turned sour. She has also been gratified in her work by earning the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Open Government Hero Award in 2015 and the Common Cause Georgia Democracy Award in 2014.
“These moments are one-time moments,” Tisdale said. “I enjoy what I do. I think others appreciate what I do. I get mostly positive feedback from viewers, readers and supporters. It’s why I continue to do what I do.”