Editorial: Light the way for democracy
This is Sunshine Week, the seven days each year since 2005 when people who believe in transparent, accountable government draw special attention to the laws that
• allow us to know what our local, state and federal governments are doing every day of the year, and
• point out where laws could be stronger to ensure open government today and tomorrow.
Two of the laws that RiverTown Multimedia and the River Falls Journal employed numerous times last year are the federal Freedom of Information Act and the Wisconsin Public Records Law. We filed what are called FOIA requests (pronounced foy-ah) that resulted in several enterprise reporting projects including:
• The Emerald Dairy manure spill
• The mental health series, including the burden on local law enforcement
• Police calls to big-box retailers
• The repeat DWI/DUI offenders, a situation some say is an epidemic
• And yet to come, a set of stories on water quality
Access to data made all the difference in telling these stories. That many local authorities pointed us toward some of that data as the stories unfolded speaks volumes about how they, too, believe in the democratic process and know that an informed, educated public is paramount.
Federal and state laws authorize requesters (who often are journalists but can be average citizens just like you) to inspect or obtain copies of records maintained by government authorities. People can't force a governmental entity to create records that don't exist, but the laws presume that records and data that do exist are open to review—that is unless the law specifically states why something is closed.
Here's another key fact: You don't have to tell the government in question why you want the information. This is because the information belongs to the public.
One law we think that needs to be stronger is the news reporter shield law. While RiverTown Multimedia rarely uses anonymous sources, sometimes situations arise where someone might act as a whistleblower. Minnesota and Wisconsin have shield laws that protect reporters from having to disclose confidential sources, turn over notes and photographs, or testify in certain circumstances. But there is no uniform federal shield law, which would be best for consistency in determining when "reporter privilege" exists.
If you're wondering why reporters should get a "pass" where the average citizen does not, remember that several similar provisions exist under federal law, such as attorney-client privilege, which exempts an attorney from testifying against a client. Medical doctors, therapists, pastors and even spouses in some states have similar privileges.
While we contend that transparency applies to journalists, sometimes reporters must use confidential sources to shine light on critical or vital information. A shield law would protect that source. In a similar vein, there are times reporters should not be compelled by government to share information; reporters are not an arm of the government. The credibility of an independent press rests on actual and perceived independence.
And so this week, we remind ourselves and our readers that we strive to bring the truth out of darkness. Equipping citizens with information is an essential function of a representative government and that's what Sunshine Week is all about.