Sunshine Week celebrates access to public information and what it means to people and communities each year.
Much of the week focused on which public officials and governments with exceptionally good or poor track records of providing access to public information. As journalists and open government advocates, we must remain vigilant against and protest shadows in government and do our best to applaud those who try to get it right.
We can often get caught up in the story of the day and forget larger issues at stake when we push for compliance of legal requirements of email archival of federal officials and text messages of local elected leaders. Without competent, experienced journalists pushing for more information to share with the public, especially when the status quo resists, ideals of an informed democracy stumbles farther from reality.
Public records and sunshine laws lose value without journalists and other citizen watchdogs paying close attention and holding government accountable. We must do our part as advocates for transparency. This involves learning laws and policies related to specific governments.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press did a fantastic job of compiling open record and open meeting laws for each state. SPJ also created a great database to provide specific contacts in each state to assist with answering questions related to public records requests.
Along with public records laws, public record retention schedules provide invaluable information related to what records different public bodies have legal requirements to maintain and archive. Each state has standards that define particular public record categories and the minimum length of time required to maintain.
I have not yet found central location providing retention schedules for each state. However, they’re easily found in online searches.
If you haven’t filed an public records request, iFOIA can help walk you through the process. Also, the crowd-funded FOIA Machine can assist by automating public records requests, a service especially helpful when juggling multiple records requests simultaneously.
Discussing access to public information reminds me we must remain faithful to the bedrock principles found in the SPJ Code of Ethics. Two specific sections come to mind:
Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
Shifting topics slightly, most of us have felt a direct impact of industry financial realities with as we embrace the digital world. Many of our own organizations’ balance sheets struggle as we push daily to do our jobs on behalf of and for the public. We must remember our responsibilities as journalists distinguish us from more agnostic terms like “content producer” used by some organizations.
More mediums exist to share stories the public needs to know to make informed decisions impacting every aspect of daily life. However, our ideals as journalists remain solid.
I take pride identifying myself as a journalist and related sense of mission. We have a noble cause essential to democracy functioning properly.
Sunshine Week extends for seven days each year, but we must push and prod for more sunshine during the other 358. It’s who we are and what we do.
The views expressed in this blog post are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ FOI Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.