By Rhonda Bletner
The Mountain Press (Sevierville, Tennessee)
In recognition of Sunshine Week, a week that emphasizes the importance of open government, The Mountain Press shared some guest opinions to demonstrate our support. Those guest opinions illustrate the significance of government transparency, and it’s equally valuable here in Sevier County. So is the role the newspaper has in maintaining a democratic government.
Sunshine Week is also a reminder that citizens’ participation and rights are also critical to a democracy. Citizens participate, of course by voting, but also by becoming informed, debating issues, and attending community or civic meetings.
Community members are not often seen at local government meetings unless the meeting directly affects them, but they do participate if they read the newspaper’s reports of those meetings and are thereby informed.
Journalists are tasked with identifying issues that concern the local population and gathering information by interviewing officials or other appropriate parties involved in the issue, and by also gathering relevant data to write articles that inform the public.
That information gathering works best when governments and newspapers mutually respect and adhere to the best practices of open government.
In April 2010 The U.S. Department of Justice released its ‘Plan for Open Government” and put forth its ongoing efforts to increase transparency in government.
The department’s explanation of the plan stated, “The Department of Justice has long had a special responsibility for open government because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Freedom of Information Act is a key tool for transparency in government. It is often through the FOIA that the public learns what the government is doing and holds the government accountable for its decisions and actions.”
This month the U.S. Department of Justice issued new policy direction for compliance to FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, even assessing fees for unmet deadlines.
All 50 states have enacted open records laws similar to the FOIA. In Tennessee, it’s called the “Tennessee Open Records Act.” Public records and open meetings help provide accountability by elected and appointed officials. Of course, it’s a given that those officials are responsible for their actions because they are in office in service to the people.
The more accountable officeholders are, the more mindful they are of their relationship to “the people,” the more transparency they can achieve.
What’s the point?
The point is journalists understand our rights as citizens to information. Journalists work at obtaining and sharing information every day. It’s a service and a responsibility to the community, and it’s not always easy.
Journalists need to be transparent, too; and Sunshine Week reminds us of that responsibility.
Too often we report stories with quotes, or statements, made by elected and private individuals, that were emailed to us. Those statements are very likely accurate; however, they represent a “prepared” statement. They aren’t remarks we gathered while interviewing someone first person. If we’re transparent, our readers should know we didn’t actually speak with the source.
Sometimes we receive remarks attributed to our desired source, but that are actually written by a public relations representative. Our readers should know that and it makes us more accountable to our audience.
The statement is likely a good, representative statement, but it is not a candid statement.
In an effort to be transparent, because if we expect transparency from our officials, we in turn should be transparent and responsible to our readers, the citizens those officials represent.
We intend to express that in our writing. If we obtain a quote from an email or through a press release (a submitted article) we will state that in our report so our readers understand the quote material was from a prepared statement.
We want to be as transparent and open as we expect our government to be.