If you’ve been paying attention to TPI’s social media accounts the last few days, you’ll know it’s Sunshine Week. And hopefully by now you know, that has nothing to do with the weather.
Launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now NLA), Sunshine Week aims to promote open government and shine light into the dark recesses of government secrecy.
Here’s the thing: The media is not out to get anyone.
During the Trump administration more than anything, it became very commonplace to be incredibly wary of “the media,” even more so than some people already were. Things like Fake News and calling reporters belittling names became everyday occurrences.
Now there are bad eggs in every bunch, so I can’t promise you 100% of journalists around the world are doing their jobs perfectly. But what I can tell you is for the vast majority of us, Fake News is not a real thing. There is news that was reported too early, wasn’t verified fully, used social media as a source, etc. But people aren’t sitting around newsrooms making things up about politicians or anyone else, and just running with it.
We don’t hear a rumor and think to ourselves, “OK, send it to press.” Instead we think, “How can we verify this? Who do we trust? What sources have led us in the right direction before?”
Again, we aren’t out to get anyone.
However, newspapers and journalists play an unbelievably important role in being the watchdogs of the community.
Why does the newspaper livestream the city council meetings? So those who can’t be there can stay informed about city government. Why does the newspaper keep a community calendar? So you can know what’s going on in your community without doing any of the research. Why does the newspaper have to report on police arrests and court convictions? So you know what’s going on around you and can be aware of potential safety hazards.
And let’s face it: Sometimes local governments and other leaders in our communities have things to hide.
Within federal and state governments, there are various branches and checks and balances. In local government, there really is no entity looking over the shoulders of local lawmakers. That’s where the newspaper can be of incredible service.
Sunshine Week is all about protecting those rights for newspapers, and ultimately for you, the readers, citizens and taxpayers. Currently being considered by the state legislature is HB106, which would allow all counties and municipalities and their political subdivisions to publish notices on websites they maintain or on a website maintained by the state. Currently in Alabama, public notices, which include things like upcoming meetings, marriages and divorces, adoptions and more, must be sent to the newspaper of record in each county.
This bill is, quite frankly, absurd. Putting government entities in charge of posting their own public notices doesn’t make sense; a third party should always be involved because it ensures accountability. With Alabama having so many rural communities, this will also limit access to those without broadband to these notices.
This would not only hurt newspapers incredibly, but it really goes back to the transparency of our local government. These elected officials work for you – not the other way around.
In our recent editions, we have been following the ransomware attack against the City of Alexander City as well as the issue of Camp Hill being nearly $60,000 behind in water bill payments to the Dadeville Water Board. These are things that directly affect citizens, and without the newspaper, many residents wouldn’t even know they are happening.
In both of these incidents, we’ve been met with obstacles from local officials in one way or another. In Camp Hill, TPI was denied a Public Records Request for receipts of payment for the water bills, which should be public because it uses taxpayer dollars and which officials said were being paid on time. In Alex City, we have been told by more than one city employee the mayor’s office has instructed departments not to speak on the ransomware attack. Mayor Woody Baird told The Outlook he himself was instructed by his legal team not to speak on the matter either.
As a newspaper editor, these are things that worry me. If everything is being done above board, why not cooperate with the local media? We are worried about things like, “What will happen if Dadeville decides to shut off water to Camp Hill, who in turn can’t provide that service to its residents?” And we question, “The City of Alexander City has a lot of information on its residents, such as addresses, social security numbers and, in many cases, credit card information; was any of their data compromised in this breach?”
These are questions our staff asks not because we’re out to get Camp Hill or Alex City. Instead, we are genuinely concerned for the residents of these communities, and we want them to be informed about what’s going on around them. There could be very plausible answers for our questions, but if so, why aren’t they being answered?
We want more than anything for our coverage areas to thrive, and that starts first with honesty and transparency from those in charge.
Lizi Arbogast Gwin is the managing editor of Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.