Time to commemorate access, accountability

This week I judged a journalism contest, assessing the efforts of Indiana newspapers to serve their communities.

One reporter took to a wheelchair and navigated dozens of Northwest Indiana buildings to determine whether the Americans with Disabilities Act was being properly enforced.

Another reporter registered the late Johnny Appleseed as the new owner of Fort Wayne’s 22-story Lincoln Tower to prove how easy it is for those engaged in mortgage fraud to elude detection.

A third reporter continued to work on a series of articles about the state’s child protective services for months after she left the newspaper for a university job.

It would be an understatement to say I was impressed with their ingenuity and diligence.

Judging the contest, sponsored by Indiana’s Associated Press, I was also struck by a unifying thread of the public service entries. No matter how ingenious, diligent or dedicated, none of those reporters could have done their job without public records laws. Each of the reporters relied on government documents, databases, regulations or publications to assess the quality of government service their readers were receiving.

Sunday marks the beginning of the fifth annual Sunshine Week, a commemoration and celebration of government transparency that is supported by news organizations, universities and the American Society of News Editors. It’s an occasion to remind readers of the value and importance of public records and meetings laws, known as sunshine laws because they allow light to shine on government.

Sunshine laws aren’t unique to the United States, but our traditions are. From the very founding of our nation, the freedom to critique and even criticize government has been a fundamental right. That’s something that makes us strong and something worth celebrating, because it allows not just the press but individual citizens to hold government accountable.

Here at the AJC, we will join in the commemoration. Sunday’s editorial page will include commentary and statements from candidates for attorney general, which is the office charged with enforcing Georgia’s sunshine laws. We’ll have other commentary through the week.

I’ll commemorate as well by highlighting some of our own worthy stories on this public editor blog. I’ll give you some behind-the-scenes information on how we got the stories and the tools we use for reporting.

I hope you will join me, beginning Monday, in the discussion here. Sunshine Week is, after all, about your government and your access to hold it accountable.

This column was originally published on AJC.com on March 12, 2010.

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