During Sunshine Week 2020, serve your audience by fighting government secrecy

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From America's Newspapers

March 15-21 marks the 15th Sunshine Week, the annual initiative to raise awareness of the importance of open government to all Americans.

As you can read in the accompanying interview with Medill’s Tim Franklin, Sunshine Week has its roots in a response to the crisis in government transparency that followed the 9/11 attacks. Federal and state legislators proposed shutting down access to public records and public meetings of all kinds in the misguided, and sometimes cynical, notion that Americans are safer the less they know about what the government is doing in their name and with their money.

These early Sunshine campaigns helped to repel these proposals for greater government secrecy.

By any measure, Sunshine Week 2020 dawns on another crisis of government transparency. During these last three years, while the president attacks the press as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news,” cabinet members have refused to disclosed their calendars, the White House no longer lists who is coming through its doors, and requests for information are stonewalled shamelessly. The Associated Press reported last year that people who asked for records under the Freedom of Information Act — public information they had a right to see — received, instead, censored files or nothing in 78% of the more than 823,00 requests.

That’s an idea Americans reject overwhelmingly in poll after poll that ask about access to public information and public meetings. The fact is, it is “ordinary” Americans — and not journalists — who make the most use of open meetings and freedom of information laws.

Americans want to know what is going on in their public schools. They want to know how their town is spending money maintaining streets and sidewalks. They want to know how their property taxes compare to similar homes. They want to be in the room when a zoning change is proposed in their neighborhood.

Sunshine Week is a perfect opportunity to remind Americans that it is their money that produces information that belongs to them, and it is their elected and appointed officials who must make decisions in front of them and not behind closed doors. This Sunshine Week, remind your audiences that the power that knowledge gives comes from demanding open government at all levels.

Participating in Sunshine Week: Some tips 

America’s Newspapers urges its members to participate in Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week’s organizers — the News Leaders Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — are offering op-eds, story ideas,  logos and more free of charge on the website, http://sunshineweek.org/

There’s much individual newspapers can do to celebrate Sunshine Week appropriately:

  • Write about how local residents use FOIA and other open information laws in their personal and business lives.
  • Tie the stories your journalists produce to FOIA requests whenever they are made.
  • Create events that celebrate the laws intended to keep government processes transparent.

“Demystify” public records, Sunshine Week’s website suggests: “Many publications, print and online, have let people know both the range and specifics of information that is available online, most often focusing on those records that are helpful to homeowners and consumers.”

Sunshine Week

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