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Home > Publications > Quill > Empower readers, viewers with FOI advice


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Thursday, January 24, 2008
Empower readers, viewers with FOI advice

Jim Lee

As an industry, we do an excellent job beating back ungrounded denials to access or officials hoping that if they charge $2,000 for a $4.99 copy of a database we’ll just go away.

But as good as we are in living up to our role as public watchdogs, we are equally bad at telling our readers and viewers why access laws — and the battles we wage on their behalf — are important. We also don’t tell readers that they can get the information themselves, or show them how.

A few years back, a concerned reader called about an issue that he thought should be brought to light. The issue itself has long since faded from my memory, but what he said has lodged itself firmly in the portion of my brain dedicated to open government.

“You can get this information because you’re with the press,” he said. “They have to give it to you.”

Sadly, the general public’s perception of the meaning of freedom of the press oftentimes is that we can get information that they can’t.

We don’t help dispel the perception when we write stories about bridge inspection reports, housing foreclosures or school violence without including information telling our readers and viewers where this information is located and how they can get it.

Look through just about every newspaper and you will see stories that feature informational boxes detailing how to get to an event, the history behind an issue, timelines or other relevant details prominently displayed in order to give readers the information they need quickly.

As a general rule, though, we don’t use these tools to provide information that will empower our readers to seek out and get public records.

As a result, the public doesn’t know the importance of open meetings or open records laws. Or worse, the perception is that the laws are only used for frivolous things, such as paparazzi stalking the escapes of the latest wayward star or starlet.

Many papers wrote stories about bridge inspections in their state or community after the collapse of an I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. How many included information for readers on how they could get those inspection reports?

Many newspapers got data from their state or community and localized an Associated Press investigation revealing widespread incidents of teacher-student sex abuse. How many of those reports included information telling readers where they could get the reports from their school system?

Part of our job is to serve as a watchdog. But another part of our job is to educate our readers and viewers.

Sunshine Week is a national effort to increase public awareness about the need for access. Newspapers across the county each March participate in projects that highlight open government.

The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions.

According to the Sunshine Week Web site, ASNE, with the help of a Knight Foundation grant, launched a national Sunshine Week effort in 2005. It is held in mid-March to coincide with National FOI Day and James Madison’s birthday.

Sunshine Week is a time when newspapers and television stations across the country highlight the importance of open government. Past years’ efforts, as well as ideas for projects, tools and contacts, can be found at the Sunshine Week Web site.

Sunshine Week is a great place to start in educating the public about open government. But rather than look at it as a once-a-year event, we should look at it as the beginning of an ongoing process to educate and empower our audiences about the use of open meetings and open government laws.

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