By Meredith Cummings, SPJ Alabama Pro, former president
This article was published in March 2016 on Medium.com as well as other Alabama publications.
I was a 20-year-old cub reporter at The Birmingham News, but I was prepared.
On every assignment I carried in my purse a copy of the state of Alabama open records and meeting laws. It shocked me how often I came across desk clerks that did not know what was public record and what wasn’t. I would explain the law to them and they would usually have to go get a supervisor. I may or may not have left with what I needed. Sometimes it took weeks to get the information.
Later, when I got kicked out of meetings that shouldn’t have been secret, that piece of paper didn’t help me. It’s that way for many journalists, who, like me, have spent countless hours sitting outside in the hallways, intently listening through closed doors as elected and appointed officials hide truth from reporters, and in doing so, the public.
I would like to say a lot has changed in my beloved home state of Alabama and the almost 25 years since, but it hasn’t. In fact, in many ways it has gotten worse.
Alabama needs help.
This week is Sunshine Week, a time when journalists everywhere will be perceived by the public as complaining about things we don’t have. But here is why this matters to everyone, not just journalists: An informed society is a better, more democratic society. Without all of the information, how can we make the best decisions?
It’s time for Alabama to operate in the sunshine and not in the shadows.
Reporters are here to serve the public. Journalism should give voice to the voiceless and tell stories that would otherwise remain untold. Wanting better open records laws is not idle curiosity. These laws allow citizens and journalists to access things like public safety records, criminal documents and matters that pose a threat to our communities.
Journalism has gotten a lot of attention lately thanks to the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight, which accurately portrays the drudgery involved in unearthing documents and tracking down sources.
But out of the spotlight, back in Alabama, things stay the same for reporters who routinely get put off by public information officers, have to pay exorbitant fees for copies of records that they are not allowed to take pictures of with their cell phone and have to wait a “reasonable” amount of time for records to be released.
Who determines reasonable? The people with the records.
At the scene of a crime reporters are often told to wait to talk to the public information officer and are pressured not to interview detectives on the scene. And, according to our state’s severely-lacking open meetings laws, financial information from public bodies may or may not be open. These examples don’t even begin to cover what some public servants hide.
Messages and information are becoming so managed that the public really doesn’t get the full story without some tenacious digging by reporters. Even with that push for transparency, reporters often come up short because of poor laws and red tape so thick it would make passing a budget in Congress seem like a birthday party.
The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press compiles a guide for journalists regarding each state’s open government laws. The guide for Alabama is 56 pages. It takes 56 pages to explain what our state lawmakers have decided the public has the right to know. The truth would take far fewer words.
By any measure, that’s extreme. Do better, Alabama.
Cummings is the Director of the Alabama Scholastic Press Association; Director of the Multicultural Journalism Workshop and Director of the National Elementary Schools Press Association. She was an instructor at the University of South Carolina, Department of Fine Arts and Communications Studies and an adjunct instructor at the University of Alabama, Department of Journalism. Her professional experience includes The Tuscaloosa News, The Birmingham News, Center for Communication and Educational Technology; Freelance writer for the New York Times Newspaper Group wire service and both South Carolina and Alabama magazines. Cummings led SPJ Alabama for many years and will be moving into the past-president position this fall.