Transparency in government is a good thing, though it may be difficult to obtain.
The whole purpose of “Sunshine Week” is to focus on the goal of open government and keeping the public informed and involved in the decisions that public officials make.
Until I had come into the world of journalism, I had never even heard of such a thing called “Sunshine Week.” Even with my legal background, my knowledge of public information laws is very limited since it was not a focus of mine while I was in law school.
There is indeed a plethora of information circling the subject and I was exposed to the tip of the iceberg on Monday at Elon University for the Sunshine Day program.
It was strange being back in the lecture type atmosphere, but instead of preparing for the next big exam, I was obtaining knowledge that I can use in my career right here, right now. That is a new experience to me entirely. As I have said before, I never anticipated being here, but that’s just the way things work. I plan and God laughs.
Now, I have always been a believer in transparency. The local government, law enforcement agencies, etc. are there to serve the residents of the area. It is my belief that they took the job knowing that their employers are the people in the community and those residents have the right to information that should be made easily available to them. When a mistake is made, own up to it and try to fix it.
Now, some residents have had only a handful of encounters with public officials in trying to acquire information or requesting a public document, but as a journalist my number of encounters with these individuals has gone up tremendously.
After listening to the statutes and the advice on how to get the information that is, or should, be available to the public, I had a thought on how do you obtain this information as a journalist while maintaining relationships throughout the area you work for — relationships that are important to any newspaper.
Hearing from journalists, attorneys and even public information officers left me wondering where that middle ground is. On one hand, being nice, friendly and helpful is usually in your best interest, but on the other hand at some point the hammer needs to drop when an elected body or public official is being particularly difficult on a point that should be open and available to anyone in the public, not just media outlets.
I learned during the lecture that with some information, the law is on the media’s side, but how do you enforce that law? That is the problem I see. Of course you can file a request for public information, but what if that request was ignored or only part of the information was provided? The option to bring a lawsuit is on the table, but is that really what it comes down to? It shouldn’t be like that in my opinion.
The one thing the lecture did harp on was the importance of education. Letting the public know that the information is there and available to them.
I don’t mean to be hard on public officials, if anything I appreciate those that have helped me tremendously in my transition from being a law student to a journalist. It has not been easy, and I’m learning new things every day.