Sunday marks the start of Sunshine Week, an effort to highlight the role of freedom of information at all levels of the U.S. government.
The week brings together a range of groups including media outlets, government officials, nonprofit organizations, schools, and libraries in an effort to promote and explain the importance of open government and how individuals and groups can access government data.
Kevin Goldberg, the legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors — the group that organizes Sunshine Week along with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — told VOA that one of the main goals for the week is to educate people on what it means to have an open government and why that is important.
He said open government laws allow citizens to ask and investigate questions such as “Is my city the next Flint?” referring to the town in Michigan where actions by government officials led to the contamination of local water sources beginning in 2014.
He said accessing government records allows people to protect themselves and inform others.
“It is important for people to understand these rights belong to everyone. It is not just a media issue,” Goldberg said.
Freedom of Information Act
One of the tools that both citizens and journalists have to help them access government information is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a federal law that took effect in 1967 that requires government agencies to release most documents upon request.
Requests can be denied for only nine reasons, including privacy and national security concerns.
The U.S. Justice Department maintains a website on how to file FIOA requests and says most requests are typically answered within one month, but says agencies can also receive an extension for more complex requests. Anyone can file a FOIA request, not just journalists.
The website WithoutFOIA chronicles news stories that could not have been told without FOIA, reported by both small newspapers and major news organizations that span a range of topics including drug enforcement, federal food inspections, and the treatment of undocumented immigrant children at the U.S. border.
State and local jurisdictions often have similar disclosure laws to FOIA that allow people both in and out of the news business to find out what is happening in their communities and hold local officials accountable.
Goldberg said Sunshine Week gives journalists the ability to “really speak out on the importance of open records as a group.” He said journalists tend not to want to become part of the story, which he said is usually a good thing, but said in this case they can help to explain the usefulness of open records.
Role of journalism
During Sunshine Week, major news organizations work together to showcase journalism’s role in promoting transparency in government. This year, their focus is on the loss of local news coverage and what that means for communities.
The Associated Press analyzed data compiled by the University of North Carolina and found that more than 1,400 cities in the United States have lost a newspaper in the past 15 years.
“The loss of a reliable local news source has many consequences for the community. One of them is the inability to watchdog the actions of government agencies and elected officials,” the report said.
The Associated Press also cited research from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, which found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication. The research found that once a newspaper closes, local officials are often emboldened to spend more, driving up project and financing costs.
While Goldberg acknowledged that the decline of local journalism could affect the public’s access to information, he noted that because of advances in technology, members of the public have a greater ability to distribute information than they had before, including using social media as well as writing blogs and op-eds.
“They can go to those in government and demand action,” he said.