I had a reporter once who took the assignment to “cover” a village meeting quite literally. The resulting story the next morning was a good 45 inches long, a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow, motion-by-motion account of what took place at the village hall for a good two hours the night before. And, after reading all 45 inches, it was very easy to conclude that nothing interesting happened at all.
That’s not to say that the minutiae of village business isn’t important; it just doesn’t always make for compelling storytelling. That’s when I gave one of my now-famous reporter lectures: The Public’s Right to Know vs. The Public’s Need to Know.
We’ve been “celebrating” Sunshine Week on our front page since Monday, marking the fourth estate’s efforts to keep government open and transparent to the people. It’s a remarkable enterprise, and a sacred challenge we in the news business swear to uphold. But in all actuality, there is a fine line versus what you have a right to know, and what you really “need” to know.
When Mike McGuire interviewed me for Monday’s opener on how The Evening Sun uses (and sometimes doesn’t use) the Freedom of Information laws, he asked if I thought the newspaper went far enough in its investigative reporting. My honest answer: Not always. As a small newspaper with an even smaller staff, we have to allocate our resources carefully – or choose our battles wisely, as I believe I said. Three and a half reporters covering the vast expanse of Chenango County isn’t a lot, even in what many outside perceive to be a sleepy little community. In an area where the cows come close to outnumbering the people, there’s sure a lot of news happening. That’s why we sometimes have to spread ourselves pretty thin, and don’t always get the chance to dig as deeply as we’d like to, or as we should.
The processes behind the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL was we like to call it in the news business, can be pretty slow. At larger newspapers where reporters work on a single story for weeks or months, the formal requests for documents and reports is a vital, necessary and useful tool. In most instances, Evening Sun reporters have less than a day to turn stories around, making the FOIL process unwieldy. We’re fortunate to live in a small enough town that we can pick up the phone and get the information we need quickly. Rarely are we stonewalled enough by sources that we have to FOIL public documents; unless it’s something they really, really don’t want to hand over, most times just asking for what you want will do the trick – and I think that holds true for the general public as well as reporters.
While we’ve chosen to use Sunshine Week to spotlight how we’re doing in terms of researching and reporting public information, it’s also a good time to assess how Chenango’s governmental entities are doing in terms of openness and transparency – and I’d say that for the most part, they deserve a passing grade. Over the years we’ve encountered a few “illegal” meetings (that weren’t given enough advance public notice, or none at all), and quite a few questionable executive sessions, but overall Chenango’s governmental bodies are pretty open and abide by the laws that keep them that way. It’s a shame really that more people don’t take advantage of that openness and participate in the process, but that’s another column.