A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.
It is the middle of the semester and news coverage is slowing down at your student newspaper. Rewritten press releases, event coverage and localized wire stories are filling the pages more and more every day. Reporters are complaining that they cannot think of any story ideas.
Interesting and important stories waiting to hit your campus could be sitting right under your nose — in your school’s and local government’s public records.
Digging through your public employee salary information, campus crime statistics or restaurant inspection reports are some simple ways to find enterprise stories that readers care about. And there is no better time to get started than during Sunshine Week 2007, March 11-17.
Debra Gersh Hernandez, coordinator for the week’s events, said open government “is important for everyone.”
“It’s not just a journalist’s issue,” Hernandez said. “Everyone has an interest in open government.”
Through editorials, columns, editorial cartoons, public forums, features and news stories about open records published during Sunshine Week, newspapers, magazines, Web sites, television and radio stations around the country look to emphasize the importance of open government and promote discussion within their communities.
Now in its third year, more than 700 news outlets participate in the event, which every year features a new countrywide audit where news organizations attempt to obtain the same public document from local governments.
Joel Campbell, assistant professor of journalism at Brigham Young University in Utah, led 20 of his students in an extra credit project as they attempted to find this year’s designated document — comprehensive emergency response plans — from 22 counties around the state.
He said his students initially thought they would be able to access the response plans without problems.
“They found out that’s not how it really works,” Campbell said.
Campbell said some county officials provided the document to the students without problems, while sheriff’s deputies interrogated others for inquiring about the information.
“It’s been an interesting experience, [the students learned] some good things,” said Campbell, who also serves as the freedom of information director for the Society of Professional Journalists.
Sunshine Week events are scheduled throughout the week across the country. Check out the Sunshine Week’s Web site for a calendar of events, as well as your state’s press association or freedom of information council for information about programs in your area, Hernandez said.
To promote open government during Sunshine Week, each day the Student Press Law Center will be running stories on our Web site about accessing open records that feature unique story ideas, how to get access to public information and student journalist’s personal accounts of obtaining open records.
Hernandez said by participating in Sunshine Week and encouraging open government in their communities throughout the year, student journalists perform their roles as “chroniclers in what is important to the campus and the community.”
“It shows the ability to take initiative and write strong stories,” Hernandez said.
Sunshine Week 2007 honorary chairs include Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, Tom Brokaw of NBC News and Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour. They are featured in a series of print and broadcast ads available to Sunshine Week participants. Editorial cartoons and columns are available for publication for free to anyone from the Sunshine Week Web site.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, also serves on the Sunshine Week steering committee.
Want to get started uncovering public information now? Check out the Access to Records, Meetings and Places> page at the Student Press Law Center Web site, as well as our State Open Records Law Request Letter Generator.
For even more Sunshine Week information including story ideas and resources on promoting open government, access the Sunshine Week Web page at www.sunshineweek.org.
By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer