Ray Cooney: Exercise your right to know in Sunshine Week and beyond
Open government is good government or, at the very least, it is better government.
Sunshine is great.
But it only matters if you take advantage of it.
The following situation has played out at public meetings recently:
Concerned resident: “I’m upset because I had no idea this was going on.”
Public official: “Well, we’ve had announcements on the radio. And information has been printed in the newspaper.”
Concerned resident: “I don’t listen to the radio and I don’t read the newspaper.”
It’s not the first time we’ve heard that. It likely won’t be the last.
But it is entirely unnecessary.
The above exchange is what we would refer to as being “voluntarily uninformed.”
In our society, we have ways of communicating information to the public. They include newspapers, radio, television and, yes, social media. (Those who communicate their messages well use them all.) But all of that effort doesn’t do much good if you don’t bother to take advantage of it.
Yes, in certain circumstances, you’ll get a note in the mail or a knock on your door alerting you about what’s going on. But that shouldn’t be expected.
When a basketball team plays a big game, no one expects a visitor to stop by and tell them the score.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, no one expected to learn about it via direct mail.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. It’s each individual’s responsibility to make an effort to be well-informed.
So, buy a subscription to the newspaper. Listen to the radio. Watch television news.
Or take a step further and attend a public meeting. If the last time you attended one was for high school government class, it might be time to attend again.
And if (hopefully when) you attend, ask questions. Ask the reporters who are there from the newspaper and/or radio station. Ask the public officials.
If you’re not a regular visitor to such meetings, it can be difficult to follow what’s going on. It’s like trying to jump into a conversation everyone else has been having for years.
Of course, no member of the public is going to have time to attend every public meeting that might have an impact on their lives. That’s OK.
That’s what we’re here for. That’s what radio news staff is here for. That’s what Associated Press reporters in Indiana and across the nation are here for. We go to the meetings so you don’t have to. We explain what happened. And we’ve been to previous meetings, so we can also provide relevant background information.
This week is Sunshine Week, an effort the News Leaders Association launched to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. It is incredibly important.
It’s not just important for newspaper and radio reporters. It’s important for you. Laws about open government ensure your rights to attend meetings, your rights to review documents, your rights to know what your elected leaders are doing.
After all, the sun could be as bright as ever. But it really doesn’t matter if you’re unwilling step outside to see what it’s shining on.
Ray Cooney is the editor and publisher of The Commercial Review.