This week marks the 10th annual observance of Sunshine Week by, primarily, the nation’s newspapers, but other forms of media as well.
For a decade -- thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg and The Gridiron Club and Foundation -- the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have urged reporters and editors around the country to remind readers and viewers why the freedom of information is so important.
Since 2005, I have used this space on the third Monday in March to participate in that education. My message this year is really no different than in previous years: Sunshine Week is about your right to know what your government, law enforcement and other public agencies are doing, along with what’s happening in courtrooms. This newspaper’s job is to be the medium by which you receive such information.
That’s why I’ve often used this column to talk not only about the freedom of information, but freedom of the press. Yes, the internet’s made accessing public information much easier for everyone, whether they’re a journalist or not. Even at the speed of electrons, it can take time to sift through public information to discern what’s relevant -- or even accurate. After all, public information’s only as accurate as the officials who release it.
Some public information isn’t published in easy to understand language or formats. Not all of it’s online, so there’s paper to go through.
And, of course, not everything which is supposed to be public is made public.
That’s where we come in. Our job is to do the legwork of looking at what’s been made public and fight for your right to know when something public hasn’t been released.
The combination of freedom of information and freedom of the press is fundamental to our country’s democracy. If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you determine if something’s going wrong? How can you vote for one candidate or another without knowing what conflicts of interest they might have, if any? How can you decide whether you’re being taxed fairly?
You can’t react to something if you don’t know about it. Without freedom of the press, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t.
Let’s think about this in terms of what we do here in the pages of the C-I. First and foremost, we attend public government meetings because we know there’s no way everyone in the county is going to attend such meetings, much less fit into a council chamber. These are our bread and butter stories, if you will, letting you know what elected officials voted on and how, and how it could affect your pocket book or wallet.
Next, we look over police and sheriff’s office reports and publish stories and our weekly crime report based on them. While there is, admittedly, an almost gossip-column air to things like our crime report, there are legitimate reasons for publishing such material. For example, wouldn’t you want to know if a bunch of car break-ins had happened near where you live? Isn’t it important to know if there’s lots of drugs being sold close to your kid’s school?
There’s another reason for us to look at incident reports: making sure our sworn officers are going about the business of enforcing the law in a responsible manner.
We’re often asked about our weekly For the Record feature where we list out real estate transactions and building permits. They are public record and, therefore, publishable. But just like crime reports, there’s more to it than that. Even if they’re weeks old (which is often the case), real estate transactions can reveal if a major land deal has occurred, while building permits can alert us to new subdivisions or businesses coming to the community.
They are definitely a growth indicator. Not long ago, I began noticing an uptick in both residential real estate sales and building permits for new homes. At a recent school board meeting, County Planner Carolyn Hammond confirmed my suspicions: growth, especially in the West Wateree, is on the rise, with the possibility of a large community being built near the I-20 exit for Elgin.
This will have major implications for the county, not just for schools, but possibly for jobs, increased retail sales and service calls on one side, and increased traffic, meeting infrastructure needs and providing fire and police protection on the other.
These are things we need to know, and we might not have had we not had access to either the transactions and building permits or Hammond’s report.
When I say “we,” I don’t mean the C-I. I mean all of us, including you. Remember, there is not one piece of information the C-I is privy to which you cannot obtain for yourself.
You can attend meetings or read over meeting minutes (or listen to/view recordings) to find out what happened. You can go to the police department and sheriff’s office and ask for a report -- and, no, you don’t have to be an “interested party.” You can go online and look up real estate transactions or go to the county government center or city hall and look at the building permits.
That’s why Sunshine Week is as much about you as it is about us who call journalism our profession. More so, because our job is to gather the information not for ourselves, but for you.
Never forget to exercise your right to information. We certainly don’t plan to forget to exercise ours on your behalf.