INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is pleased to honor a news organization, a statewide government and public affairs channel and a freedom of information advocate and expert with national Sunshine Awards, recognizing them for their important contributions in the area of open government. Awards will be presented to The Seattle Times, The Connecticut Network and Dr. Bill Chamberlin of the University of Florida.
The Seattle Times: Your Courts, Their Secrets
In a two-year investigation, The Seattle Times found widespread sealing of court files, leading to a series of articles that exposed the secrecy and led to more open courts in Washington state. Reporters Justin Mayo and Ken Armstrong found that 420 civil suits had been completely sealed since 1990 in their local courthouse alone. Their work led to the unsealing of suits about a teacher who molested young girls, hospitals accused of major medical malpractice and a judge who mismanaged cases. The investigation called “Your Courts, Their Secrets” led to the unsealing of hundreds of cases.
The required months of tedious work manually checking each case individually in the clerk’s office resulted in 420 requests for sealing orders. All but 37 were granted. The Times reporters then checked each of the sealing orders to ensure that each file had been sealed properly to meet the “compelling circumstances” requirement. In 97 percent of the cases, they did not. When Mayo, Armstrong and investigations editor James Neff confronted the judges, most agreed the cases should not have been sealed, while others resisted. The reporters began working on scrappy stories about the horrific incidents in the files, gleaning as much information as they could from additional sources. Their first story, which was published right before the paper went to court to unseal the remaining documents began:
“Four years ago, a lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court, alleging that a medical device was unsafe. A woman using it wound up in a coma. You’d probably like to know: What’s the device? Does anyone in my family use it? Unsafe how? But you can’t know. You’re not allowed to know.”
The story ended with the line, “We start filing motions tomorrow. We’ll let you know how it goes.”
The Connecticut Network
The Connecticut Network, which broadcasts statewide was honored with a Helen Loy Award from the Connecticut Pro SPJ chapter in May. Noting its commitment to allowing citizens to witness and understand their government at work, the chapter was enthusiastic about recognizing the Connecticut Network.
“The public’s need to know and Helen Loy’s vision of freedom of information have meshed together almost seamlessly at CT-N,” wrote Steve Kalb, president of the Connecticut Pro chapter in his dedication speech in May. “We honor the board and its staff for their efforts at making the workings of government transparent to the public they serve. We applaud their work and encourage them for the future.
The addition of original programming, the variety of events covered, the resources available on CT-N’s Web site and its outreach to the community are also laudable and worthy of recognition. Since its inception, part of CT-N’s charge has been to make state government more open, accessible and transparent to citizens.
Dr. Bill Chamberlin
Since 1987, Dr. Bill Chamberlin has served as the Joseph L. Brechner Eminent Senior Scholar in Mass Communications at the College of Journalism and Communications. Additionally, he serves as director of the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project, a valuable resource of information about every aspect of public records and meeting laws for every state, including the nation’s only ranking of the laws in all 50 states.
Through his tutelage, his journalism students, including National Freedom of Information Coalition Director and former SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman Charles Davis, have conducted valuable research in state and federal access laws; have fostered knowledge about freedom of information for journalists, the public, and public officials; and have litigated on behalf of the media.
“Bill is singularly responsible for training a generation of scholars working on freedom of information issues at the federal, state and local level,” Davis said. “His passion for media law is contagious, and he never, ever, was too busy, or too distracted by his many duties, to drop what he was doing and help a student. Few journalism professors have as proud a legacy of achievement. He literally has shaped the careers of dozens of his students, who remain committed to open government years later thanks to a role model extraordinaire.”
Before entering academia, Chamberlin was a reporter at newspapers in Washington State and an editorial assistant for Congressional Quarterly. For almost all of 40 years, he has been an active fighter in access issues, assisting journalists and testifying before committees of Congress and the Florida Legislature. A founding board member for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Chamberlin also has published numerous academic articles on freedom of information and was long-time co-author of one the textbooks most used in universities to train students in media law.
The Seattle Times, The Connecticut Network and Bill Chamberlin will be recognized Saturday, Oct. 6 during a dinner at the 2007 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference in Washington, D.C. at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill, 400 New Jersey Ave., NW.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.