This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It serves as a reminder that the public has a “right to know” and calls attention to laws that demand public access to government records and meetings. It goes without saying that those of us in the news media are keenly interested in defending “freedom of information” laws and the press protections of the First Amendment.
In our role as reporters, we act on behalf of our readers to obtain information about their government and defend their rights to that information. It is part of our job that we take very seriously.
At the local level we generally find that executive sessions, portions of meetings where the public and press are excluded, are the most likely to be misused and called without the properly-worded motion. Once in executive session, it is easy for boards to stray from the allowed topic.
We believe that most local violations of New York’s Open Meetings Law are caused by part-time elected officials not being fully familiar with the law. To that end, we call on those officials to read or re-read New York State's Freedom of Information Law. And we'd encourage boards to designate a FOIL officer: a board member who is charged with raising a point of order if an executive session is being improperly called, or if an executive session becomes “off topic” and drifts into what should be a public discussion. Of course, when we find that the law is being violated, we will note it.
Elected officials should understand that the Open Meetings section of the law provides limited authority for private sessions, and does not require private sessions except in a few specified instances.
Elected officials shouldn't seek cover of executive session to avoid embarrassment or for political reasons. Difficult decisions are part of holding public office, and those decisions are the ones that the public should have the opportunity to understand the process, not just the vote.
The portion of the law that deals with public records is sometimes used as a roadblock to those seeking public records, rather than an information bill of rights. The law gives records officers time to produce requested information, but does not require a lengthy delay. It should be policy to hand over the requested documents as soon as possible, in most cases without the formality of a decision process. The timeframes of the law are intended to protect the public from the unreasonable withholding of information, not to give officials a way to delay release in hopes that the requester will lose interest, or that the matter will have become moot.
We will always do our part to encourage or require compliance with the law. It is our hope that at the local level our neighbors in elected office will not just comply, but will champion open government and schools.
There was a time when “fake news” was limited to supermarket tabloids, Mad Magazine and, more recently, The Onion and the Daily Show. Consumers could pretty-much differentiate between the outrageously absurd attempts at humor and political satire and “real” news.
Today, it seems there needs to be some clarification regarding the type of fake news. There is fake news as humor or satire. There is fake news as “click bait” to trick internet users into going to a website where the perpetrator makes money from the display of advertising. There is fake news as propaganda or disinformation. And there is fake news used as a label to discredit real news reports, as now regularly practiced by President Trump, when the subject of the report doesn't like what he or she reads.
Fake news, even humorous fake news, is a threat to the democracy when the news consumer cannot differentiate one from the other.
The answer to the fake news problem isn't in engaging in a Twitter war with the President, or ridiculing a demographic group for getting their news from a satire show, or even demanding that Facebook deal with its role in disseminating fake news (though that should happen).
Like so many things in a democracy, the answer is in education. Children need to understand propaganda, whether commercial or political, and they need to understand standards of professional, ethical journalism. No student should leave the public education system without demonstrating an understanding for how people will attempt to influence their thinking and how to identify questionable news coverage. We stand ready to assist local school districts in that effort by encouraging student newspapers.
Standards and Resources
News organizations can point their fingers at themselves, in many cases, for a decline in open government and a rise in fake news. The newspaper industry was once the trusted source, the leader of long-form reporting, the champion of open government. Daily newspapers failed to find an answer to the disruption of the digital age. For many, the solution to declining readership was to make personnel cuts in the newsroom, which resulted in further readership declines. Thousands of reporters have been cut from newspapers, budgets for investigative reporting cut and the ability to spend money on lawsuits to force governments to let go of public records reduced.
We believe most newspapers cling to the ethics and standards of professional journalism, even under difficult circumstances. However, there must be a redoubling of efforts by journalists to differentiate professional journalism from digital “news” sites with an agenda, “talk TV” and biased reports in any medium. It is not healthy for democracy to have citizens turning to their news source because the “news” matches their point of view.
Newspapers need to be vigilant in checking sources, both individuals and from organizations that produce “findings” on various topics. Reporters need to use unidentified sources sparingly and only when the information can be independently confirmed by additional sources. Opinion and analysis must be properly identified and bias, which is a natural human condition, must be wrung out of any news story. Errors need to be acknowledged and corrected.
Newspapers need to be able to withstand the charge of “fake news.” Pressures, either from time or finances, to reduce journalistic standards must be avoided. When questioned, the newspaper should know that it has done its job correctly and its readers should know that when we say “we stand by our story” they can trust our work.
*Editor’s note: Here in Springville, and the surrounding areas, we are lucky to have government and school boards that understand and practice open meeting laws. However, if needed, our news staff will defend the public’s right to know.