Sunshine week

Your right to know

This week is National Sunshine Week, which recognizes the laws-- called Sunshine Laws--enshrined in the Federal and State Constitutions, ensuring the public and press have access to the working of government and public records. Sunshine Laws are an essential part of a democracy, allowing the press to practice Watchdog Journalism and hold government accountable. These laws also allow citizens--any citizen---access to their government.


Open government much better government 

By Jim Zacahry, CNHI


Open government is good government or, at the very least, it is better government.

In order for government to be of, by and for the people, it must always be out in front of the people.

Government at all levels — local, state and federal — belongs to the governed not to the governing.

As often said, we are the government and the government is us.

All the business transacted by government and all the money collected and spent by government belongs to the public.

However, public oversight is only possible when government is open, transparent and accessible.

Nefarious deeds happen in the dark, behind closed doors.

Every state has laws requiring local jurisdictions — city councils, county commissions, boards of education, governing authorities, commissions and boards — to disclose public records and conduct public meetings out in the open.

Unfortunately, many states exempt state government itself from those same requirements.

It is unfortunate that laws are even needed to require government at any level to be transparent. 

Simply put, those with nothing to hide don’t hide.

There is nothing partisan or political about government transparency, or at least there shouldn’t be.

When the public attends government meetings or files open records requests, it is simply democracy in action. Full access to our government is part and parcel of our liberty.

Your local newspaper helps keep an eye on government by attending meetings and filing freedom of information requests but open government laws are not media laws. All of us should have unfettered access to what government is doing.

The right to know is a public right.

When records custodians at city hall or the county courthouse, with the public school system or at the state capitol comply with our public records requests, they are simply giving us what already belongs to us. Complying with records requests should be viewed as routine transactions between local government and the public. 

Attending the meetings of local government, sitting in on deliberations, understanding not only what decisions are reached but how those decisions are reached should be a very ordinary interaction between local government and the general public. 

Not only is open government good government, it is the government we have. 


Jim Zachary is CNHI’s director of newsroom training and development, editor of The Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.


You Can’t Have Democracy Without a Free Press

By Gene Policinksi, Freedom Forum


There’s a reason we need a free press, despite its faults and foibles: Democracy won’t work without it.

The grand experiment in self-governance that is the United States is  rooted in trust and confidence we all will work toward the greater good.  But the nation’s founders had experience with a king and his expected  benevolence — and what could happen when things didn’t work out.

So, they provided for three branches of government to balance each  other, along with periodic elections and the rights for us to assemble  and seek change when we think things have gone astray.

All fine, but also relatively long-term solutions. How do we know  what our government is doing, how well it is operating or whether our  elected officials are up to the job?

Enter the only profession mentioned in the Constitution: A free  press, to serve as a “watchdog on government.” A free press the  government cannot control, to offer an independent, regular update on  behalf of the rest of us.

Let’s stop to acknowledge that many of us are dissatisfied with the  free press we have. Survey after survey shows low public trust in our  news outlets and in the journalists who staff them.

But in those same Freedom Forum surveys about the First Amendment  that began in 1997, the desire for that watchdog role remains high,  often supported by a majority of people questioned.

How can these two results co-exist? The answers rest in what kind of  press we mean. Much of the highly visible kerfuffle on social sites  today concerns national reporting, and more narrowly, the political  pundits on cable TV and the tiny percentage of journalists who are the  White House press corps.

For most of us, today’s journalism is something different — and much  more relevant to us. We see a news media bringing us the day-to-day  information we need to live our lives: What local officials are saying,  weather forecasts and crime, health and safety reports for our  communities. The work of journalists helps us get things done. Reporters  ask the questions we would ask if we could be there.

Jurors in Des Moines, Iowa, this week appeared to support the role of journalists as watchdog when they acquitted reporter Andrea Sahouri, who was arrested while covering a Black Lives Matter protest despite her repeated protestations that she was a journalist.

Local journalists, who are the vast majority of the 24,000-plus on  the job today, live in the communities on which they report. In just the  past month, they have reported on COVID-19 vaccination programs — both  the successes and failures by officials we depend upon to keep us safe  and fight the pandemic.

Other recent stories told by big and small news operations alike will benefit hundreds of thousands, if not millions of us.

A report on nursing homes in New York state disclosed they may have  tested unproven COVID-19 treatments on residents, despite safety  warnings, without telling family members. A news partnership in South  Carolina found the state has dropped virtually all oversight of local  officials’ activities, leading to “questionable or illegal perks of  holding public office.” In Mississippi, residents now know a biodiesel  plant is accused of illegally dumping hazardous material into public  waterways.

Throughout our nation’s history, it has been a free press that has  probed, prodded and produced safer food and medicines and helped reveal  waste, fraud and abuse of public trust.

Reporters uncover these stories only by poring over records,  reviewing court documents and interviewing sources — activities most of  us don’t have the time, skill or opportunity to do.

The guarantee that a press is free does not guarantee it will always  be good or correct, or that we will like what it presents. But there are  more ways than ever to get news and information and to find reports we  can trust or verify.

Ironically, the newest source for news and information has helped  create some of the greatest threats to a free press in the nation’s  history:

The web has decimated financial support for traditional media, and newer media is not yet robust enough to take its place. This results in “news deserts,” where no regular sources of journalism exist.

Misinformation can now spread across the globe in milliseconds, sowing doubt, confusion and mistrust of the reports and motives of a free press.

The free press in any form has been weakened by cuts in staff, with surveys showing the ranks to be less than half of what they were 20 years ago.

Not all the news about a free press is bleak. New financial models  are being tested. Collaborations between news organizations and  nonpartisan expert collectives have shown results. New attention is  focused on regrowing the ranks of local journalism. But more is needed,  from increased public support to new revenue sources to regaining the  public trust.

On March 16, we celebrate the birthday of James Madison, the  principal author of the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of  Rights. He called a free press “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”

This generation, perhaps unlike any other, is being called on to defend that bulwark and, in the process, protect our liberty.


Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum. He can be reached at, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.


Newspapers excel as your collective ‘eyes and ears’

By Jim Pumarlo


My days of sitting behind an editor’s desk have passed, but I’ll never lose my newspaper blood. I regularly enjoy my first cup of coffee while scanning newspaper websites. It’s a great way to keep current on what’s happening in communities.

Public affairs have always been a passion, so I pay particular attention when the broad arena of issues is addressed. The role of newspapers as watchdogs of the dynamics in both the public and private sectors bears underscoring during Sunshine Week, March 14-20, and its theme, “Your Right to Know.”

Some recent headlines:

From the Chanhassen Villager: “Build, invest or tear down are all options for some District 112 elementary schools.”

From the Rochester Post-Bulletin: “Court records show troubling past of Wabasha County administrator applicant.”

From the International Falls Journal: “Campus officials talk gap years, hopes for fall enrollment.”

From the Duluth News Tribune: “Do Duluth’s legislative priorities reflect the community’s?”

From the St. Cloud Times: “What are local economists expecting in 2021?”

These headlines, though from Minnesota newspapers, are representative of the breadth of public affairs reports delivered regularly by newspapers.

Some stories are firsthand meeting reports. Some reflect enterprise initiatives. Some are the result of digging beneath the initial set of facts. Some take the additional step of offering editorial perspective. 

And they all are delivering news that is valuable but not always readily available to readers.

The examples reflect a personal philosophy. Community newspapers, at their best, are stewards of their communities. The news columns are a blend of stories that people like to read and stories they should read. The advertising columns promote and grow local commerce. And the editorial pages are a marketplace of ideas.

The news media landscape has never been more fractured. Newspapers have never been more challenged due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Yet, the need for trained journalists to gather, deliver and interpret the news – the need for citizens’ “right to know” – is more important than ever as we navigate the effects of the coronavirus. I remain a firm believer that local newspapers have an advantage in today’s crowded media terrain by being the premier clearinghouse of information in your communities. They deliver the news on a range of platforms from print to digital.

The value of trained journalists in collecting and interpreting information is especially important within the context of local public affairs.

Citizens are increasingly challenged to keep abreast of actions of a city council, school board, county board, or any of the numerous other local governing bodies. Then they have to decipher what the decisions, singularly and collectively, mean in their personal and business lives.

You have an advocate in your community newspapers.

Make no mistake. Editors and reporters are challenged as well in gaining access to everyday sources during the pandemic. At the same time, they have the tools that others may lack.

Journalists have relationships with government officials and staffs.

Journalists have been trained in the routine. They know how to flesh out information that is not readily volunteered or available. They know who to contact. They know where to look. They know the questions to ask.

Bottom line, journalists are undeterred in their role as your community’s collective set of eye and ears. They thrive on delivering the news; it’s their full-time job. Readers can rest assured that editors and reporters will continue to present a full menu of news during the ordinary and extraordinary times.

Sunshine Week is a great reminder that energized newspapers are at the foundation of energized communities.


Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at and welcomes comments and questions at

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