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This article was prepared by Chris Krug for Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s Restoring Accountability essay series on government transparency to commemorate Sunshine Week. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
The work of a journalist isn’t easy.
Transparency is not natural. No one — politician, public official, or not-so-public official — is eager to be held accountable by their employer. Not a single one is waiting by the phone to answer questions about what they may know, what they may be doing, or what they’ve done. It doesn’t work that way.
Journalists who are focused on straight-news reporting and who create a story from a source origin use every bit of their monthly data plans. Ask a journalist about the amount of time required to report and write — let alone to edit — a story that may take five minutes to read.
Reporting on the private sector is challenging, because sources may have no interest in participating. That’s their right.
But these same challenges shouldn’t exist for reporters who focus on the public sector. Too often the difference between the two isn’t always clear among those who serve in government at any level.
Every week is Sunshine Week for journalists at Franklin News Foundation. The core of our work is focused on the public sector with reporters in 36 states. Our national newswire service, The Center Square, invests the full account of its time on local issues that matter to taxpayers.
Editors and reporters at The Center Square focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of government, holding politicians and unelected bureaucrats accountable for what they are and aren’t doing at the state and local levels across the country.
We report the news with a taxpayer’s sensibility, taking that additional reporting step that Big Media does not by asking specific questions about the cost of government — anything from the way that statehouses spend other people’s money to the ways in which they get that money from the citizens they represent.
Any reading of the Constitution gives the impression that coverage of government should be relatively simple. The operations of government should be open and clear. Whether the story is focused on the municipal animal control or the Office of the President, government should operate with full transparency. Our representatives and their staff should be interested in explaining their activity to those who fund it.
But any average American who has questioned the activity of their local dog catcher or their state legislature or the federal government knows that’s too often not the case.
Again, nobody – not your school board president, not your state legislator, definitely not your representative in Congress — is waiting by the phone hoping that a reporter calls them to check in and ask about what they’re up to. Journalists know “circle back” and “whatever” are synonyms.
Politicians have priorities, especially in budgets. Every operating budget for every size and shape of government allocates dollars to every kind of initiative, but rarely are enough resources dedicated to adequately respond to citizens’ requests for information. Our Freedom of Information laws, in many states, are toothless and allow government too many opportunities to sidestep or stall while readying scant information it eventually releases to the public.
As an exercise, submit a freedom of information request for something at a local or state government and see for yourself what you get back and when it arrives. See if even the most specific requests, where information you seek has been narrowed, are fulfilled. See how long it takes. And then see how much information has been redacted. What’s left is frequently unhelpful.
Journalism has changed over time. Straight-news reporting once was a commodity. Most metropolitan cities were served by multiple newspapers and independent reporting staffs at radio and television stations. Even the smallest towns had viable, 7-day-a-week newspapers that covered local government. That is no longer the case.
The blame is varied: the rise in cost of producing a newspaper every day. The rise of “Twitter journalism.” And the rise in distrust of journalists. Each helped shrink newsrooms with even fewer reporters who are vying for the truth, and checking government via compulsory, pocketbook-focused reporting.
At that same time, most local and state — and certainly the federal — governments expanded in size but not in transparency. Government has grown while newsgathering has shrunk. The amount of time and treasure to request, receive, and report government comings and goings has remained virtually unchanged. It’s a tragic equation in which bad governments win and good taxpayers lose.
Many view government as too big, too complex, and too far beyond the man on the street’s ability to question and understand. That need not be the case.
Government should not be able to cloak its mechanics, its decisions, or its operations from the citizens it serves and get away with it. At least, if journalists have anything to say about it.
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