By Bradford Simpson
Freedom of the press should never be taken for granted. As we celebrate Sunshine Week, a national initiative designed to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy, this is the opportunity to remind us all that truth-seeking journalism is alive and well and should be celebrated.
Journalists, as the eyes and ears of the public, rely on public access laws to keep you informed, and great reporting begins with government transparency.
A significant part of a journalist’s job is taking time to dig into government records and attend public meetings. It is often a thankless job, but it is absolutely critical to the proper function of our democracy. Government information belongs to us all, and it is often journalists seeking public information and accountability for you.
It is your right to be informed about government action. It is the government’s duty to provide meaningful access so that you can exercise that right and hold government officials accountable.
In recognition of this, Pennsylvania legislators enacted the Sunshine Act and Right to Know Law, Pennsylvania’s primary public access laws. These laws codify open government concepts that pre-date this Nation and recognize the fact that government functions best when citizens are fully informed and actively involved in government decisions.
Despite these laws and their laudable intent, journalists struggle every day to access even the most basic information about government.
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association helps journalists resolve access issues approximately 2,000 times every year, and this number illustrates the significant struggle Pennsylvanians face every day when attempting to access government information. Access to public information is critical for journalists to do their job, and when they are denied, you are denied.
Barriers to access are dangerous to us all because without access there is no accountability, only misinformation, conjecture and confusion. To keep you informed, journalists seek to ensure the Sunshine Act and Right to Know Law are applied consistent with their intent, so the public can be fully informed and actively involved in Pennsylvania government.
On behalf of over 250 newspapers and online-only news organizations across the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association is working with lawmakers to remove unnecessary barriers to access information from and about government.
In line with that goal, and to help the journalists we work with every day, we are advocating for public agencies to record executive sessions for later review by a court; for providing agendas in advance of meetings so the public can attend and participate on issues that matter to them; and for keeping public notices in newspapers so that you know what’s going on in your community and have a chance to participate in a decision before it is made.
Sunshine Week really should be sunshine year because journalists work tirelessly all year to exercise the laws that guarantee freedom of information, the backbone of our democracy. We welcome the transparent light of Sunshine Week and invite you to celebrate with us as we work to improve public access and accountability in Pennsylvania and recognize the critical role the press plays in our democracy.
Bradford Simpson is the president of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, an industry trade group. He writes from Harrisburg.