Protecting the public's right to know

Sunshine Week is a national media initiative to open dialogue on open government and freedom of information. All this week, The Evening Sun will be focusing its coverage on what’s happening in our governments, schools, communities and the newsroom to encourage government transparency. Today’s feature assesses what’s being done, and not being done, at the newspaper to hold elected officials and department heads accountable. Tomorrow will look at executive session laws; when it’s legal and when it’s not.

Reporters don’t have any special rights over the public in gaining access to government records under Freedom of Information Laws.

But reporters do have a special responsibility to hold all levels of government accountable, one expert on open government says, and Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests are one of the more useful tools they have when looking out for the public’s interest.

At The Evening Sun, however, FOIL is an avenue rarely used when following the bureaucratic paper trail. In fact, the paper’s five-writer staff collectively has used it less than a dozen times in the last year – some newspapers use FOIL that many times in a week, or even a day.

That raises the question: As watchdogs of local government, does the Sun need to do more?

Tough questions

According to Robert Freeman, director of the New York State Commission on Open Government in Albany, the use, or lack thereof, of FOIL isn’t necessarily an indicator of good or bad reporting. The real indicator is whether or not reporters, as the “eyes and ears” of the public, are asking the tough questions of local officials that others won’t, or can’t, he said.

“You can’t be intimidated when members of the public might be,” said Freeman.

Evening Sun Managing Editor Jeff Genung acknowledges that in his 17-year tenure, many of his reporters have had to overcome intimidation – especially young writers, the majority of whom wind up covering the communities and people they grew up in. They have the tendency to shy away from creating controversy, Genung said, because they’re less insulated from the reactions a controversial story solicits. That’s often cured with time, he said.

“Occasionally we have to put the pressure on a friend, a neighbor or an official we’ve known all our lives. But we have to become less afraid to do that,” said Genung. “In this business, you have to develop broad shoulders. Our reporters have to learn how to take that criticism, take that heat.”

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