The Times West Virginian

March 16, 2014

Sunshine Week more than press issue; Americans have right to know

Times West Virginian

— “Open government is good government” is the theme for Sunshine Week, which runs today through Saturday.

It was launched in 2005, and the focus is on the importance of access to public information and what it means to the providers of this information and the community. The annual initiative promotes open government and pushes against against excessive official secrecy.

Sunshine Week, of course, gets plenty of attention in the media across the country — those people in charge of providing information to their readers, listeners and viewers.

The concept, however, is wider — much wider.

“Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors and is now coordinated in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, but freedom of information isn’t just a press issue,” explained Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association.

“It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.”

Americans have a right to know about the action being taken by their government — from officials in the smallest communities to the White House. Secrecy — with obvious exceptions such as national security and legitimate privacy concerns in matters such as personnel decisions — should not be tolerated in our country.

In too many cases, though, it is.

“There’s a clear trend toward increased secrecy in this country. I see it in my survey research of journalists, and I also see it just on the ground, in what’s happening at state capitals and the federal government,” David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, who studies citizen and press access to public information, told The Associated Press.

Secrecy can be a problem at all levels of government.

In a survey of more than 450 state and local reporters to be released this week, The Associated Press reported, an overwhelming majority said that public information officers for agencies they cover are increasingly restricting access to officials and imposing other controls.

“The problem is pervasive,” said Carolyn Carlson, a professor of communication at Kennesaw State University, outside Atlanta, who conducted the survey. “I think it’s a problem for reporters as well as for the public. It means that reporters can’t tell the story that they want to be able to tell them about their government.”

There is so much to learn through a relentless pursuit of information.

The Washington Post, for example, in a 2012 project, reviewed the financial disclosure forms of all 535 members of Congress and identified 73 lawmakers who pushed legislation that could benefit businesses or industries in which they or a family member was invested or involved.

Americans “hire” their government representatives at the ballot box. They have every right to get the information to evaluate their performance.

That’s why the importance of Sunshine Week must not be diminished.

The press must be free to gather critical information and then responsibly report it. The public, at the same time, has the right to know.