By Matt Harrelson
March 21, 2014
The media needs the government, and the government needs the media. It’s a simple recipe, but the key ingredient is transparency.
I recently traveled with my newspaper colleagues to Elon University for Sunshine Day which was hosted by the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. The coalition’s mission statement is to unite organizations interested in ensuring and enhancing the public’s access to government activity, records and meetings. The sunshine center of the NCOGC’s website also says the nonpartisan coalition will educate people about their rights and support their efforts to gain access and advocate the principles and benefits of open government.
Simply put, governments at the federal, state and local level, look out. We’ve got our eyes on you.
It can seem at times that getting information from local officials is difficult here in Richmond County as I’m sure it can be anywhere. The point is that the public deserves to know what’s going on with their tax money and what their government is up to. It’s up to us as newspaper reporters and media to make sure that information is available.
Waldo Jaquith, founder of the U.S. Open Data Institute, was the keynote speaker during our luncheon on Sunshine Day, and he made a good point about transparency of government but on a federal level. If reporters have to request Freedom of Information Acts, or FOIA, then the government has already failed. It’s up to the government to release documents, emails, criminal records or whatever the case may be so that the people who pay their salaries can have access to the information we’re paying them to produce.
Now here in Richmond County, not all local officials’ main jobs are to be local officials. In other words, our taxes don’t pay some of their entire yearly incomes. But elected officials are just that. Elected, by us. We’re supposed to be able to know where our money goes and what it’s being used for. The media, us at The Daily Journal included, can provide that information as long as we can obtain what we need to know.
I’ve learned over the last month, and then more to a point at the Sunshine Day program, that it’s our rights as journalists to be able to get the data we need to keep the public informed. I’ve learned that litigation is a road we can travel, albeit an expensive one, to get the material we need. I’ve learned there are multiple websites available for anyone looking to obtain or share data including Mimosa.org, Capital Hound, open-nc.org and the Open Data Institute. There are resources out there.
I also learned to make sure to ask for a record and not just information, develop relationships, not just sources, know public record policy before calling for it and possibly most important, be willing to compromise.
I’m glad that I was able to attend Sunshine Day at Elon University and I’m glad there’s a Sunshine Week so we can help to put the word out there that information is power. Government shouldn’t be the only ones to wield it.