Journalists, educators and freedom of information stalwarts will gather this week in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss freedom of information in the United States with the National Freedom of Information Coalition at their Freedom of Information Summit, along with numerous other groups dedicated to an open government and the public’s right to know. The Society of Professional Journalists is an official sponsor of the summit.
The event is a chance to understand the challenges journalists – and others – are facing across the country relating to FOI. Since the Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1967, government officials have attempted to block reporters from obtaining information that is supposed to be public.
In 2017, government transparency is perhaps even more critical in the age of Donald Trump. His vicious, brazen attacks on news organizations and, in some cases, individual reporters should invigorate journalists everywhere to fight for the truth, uncover the inner-workings of government, investigate corruption, and continue delivering quality journalism in order for voters to make informed decisions.
At the state level, it is equally important for citizens to understand how their taxpayer money is spent. City and county governments, police departments, sheriff’s departments, local school boards, state departments of education, and a multitude of other agencies should be forced to be transparent based on state open records and open meetings laws.
For instance, The Bluffton (South Carolina) Police Department just made it more difficult for reporters and residents to obtain information: http://www.islandpacket.com/news/politics-government/article175997876.html
Also, in South Carolina, candidates for Beaufort County’s administrator position were to be interviewed behind closed doors, in executive session: http://www.islandpacket.com/news/politics-government/article176118176.html
At the federal level, Columbia Journalism Review takes a look at the problem of government secrecy by lawmakers in Washington: https://www.cjr.org/watchdog/foia-congress-healthcare.php
Agencies’ refusal to be transparent is problematic. Oftentimes, these government officials do not want embarrassing information to be released. Some are simply ignorant of the law. Others abuse their power in refusing to turn over open documents. Many are just showing their arrogance of power.
It’s no secret, journalism is under attack. Yet, some citizens are unaware of the magnitude of municipalities, state and federal agencies that operate in the dark. We must work even harder to uncover those who demonize our industry. After all, the First Amendment protection of freedom of the press is being threatened right now by the man who currently sits in the Oval Office. If that doesn’t scare every American citizen, it should. And, if the President can get away with it, others see an opening to treat journalists the same way. When the press comes under attack by simply asking questions, our democracy is threatened. It runs counter to what our Founding Fathers intended.
Several years after his Presidency, James Madison said, “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”
Madison understood the power of the press. He also understood the need for people who truly wish to live freely to have access to information. Access to open records and open meetings is a vital part of our democratic values.
First Amendment theorist Thomas I. Emerson believed in the moral obligation to receive information from the government. He explained that if we truly believe we must have information in order to exist, the First Amendment is the beginning of all other rights in a democratic society.
“This right would extend, as a starting point, to all information in the possession of the government. It is hard to conceive of any government information that would not be relevant to the concerns of the citizen and taxpayer.” – Thomas I. Emerson
This week’s summit will remind journalists everywhere of the extraordinary burden we are facing. It will also provide clarity on the tremendous task that lies ahead in rebuilding trust in journalism while also holding elected officials accountable. Arrogant politicians will continue to belittle the important work journalists do each day.
American citizens must understand the powerful theory of the public’s right to know and the important role the press plays in our democracy, regardless of how we are portrayed by powerful, corrupt politicians.
David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor with his column “Baxley Bites” for the SPJ Region 3’s news website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.