The Times West Virginian

March 14, 2013

Transparency in government involves more than journalists


Times West Virginian

— Each March, members of the media participate in Sunshine Week, a national initiative co-sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that focuses on transparency for all levels of government.

But journalists aren’t the only ones involved. Participants can — and should — include government officials at all levels, schools and universities, libraries and archives, nonprofit and civic organizations, and historians.

In fact, any individual who has an interest in open government can be part of Sunshine Week. The coalition of supporters is broad and deep.

And as the website (www.sunshineweek.org) dedicated to promoting awareness of Sunshine Week points out, individual participation can make all the difference.

So how can you get involved? It’s simple: Do something to engage in a discussion about the importance of open government.

Maybe that means you attend a public forum or a classroom discussion.

Or maybe you read an article or series of articles about access to important information.

It doesn’t matter what you do. It just matters that you get involved in the process.

After all, Sunshine Week isn’t just for journalists on the trail of government conspiracy or wrongdoing. It’s for average people — business owners, homeowners or people who have an issue with an arrest.

Sometimes those average people come across brick walls while look­ing for public documents. But by using Sunshine Laws, they can take down those brick walls and effectively change the way their local gov­ernments do business to ensure the public has access to the documents and information they have the right to.

As newspapers, we try often to remind read­ers that journalists don’t have any super powers. We simply use the laws that keep information free and accessible to the public to report on the issues that matter to the public. And as journal­ists we, too, come across those brick walls and have to seek legal counsel or take the issue through the court system.

The ASNE chooses to observe Sunshine Week to include the March 16 birthday of Founding Father and author of the U.S. Constitution James Madison. It was he who wrote that “consent of the governed” requires that the people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Every day as journalists we attempt to arm our readers with information by covering open meetings, by looking at critical issues, by seek­ing and examining documents to look for trends or issues. We present the information and allow our readers to make decisions about who they vote for, what organizations they support, where they send their child to school or even where they choose to buy a home.

As long as the “sun” is shining, we can do that. And a cloud that blocks the sun or a shad­owy corner that happens when a government agency doesn’t understand freedom of informa­tion or open meeting laws will not discourage us from that mission. The torch that we carry, the public’s right to know, will brighten any dark spot.

This week and every single day, we celebrate those who blazed the trail before us, the tena­cious journalists and citizen warriors, who have continuously upheld each and every person’s right to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”