Freedom of Information: Government secrecy irks the press, and no one else

As media outlets seek access to more government information, they must convince the public that doing so will benefit - not harm - Americans.

As media outlets seek access to more government information, they must convince the public that doing so will benefit - not harm - Americans.

Ask a journalist about government secrecy since 9/11, and you'll likely be treated to an indignant rant. Ask your average American, and the conversation will probably focus on national security and the need to keep information out of the hands of terrorists.

So it's not hard to see why Americans don't always appreciate the lengths the media go to, supposedly on their behalf, to break down the formidable barriers to information erected by the Bush Administration.

In 2002, a group of journalists in Florida decided to take on this growing disconnect. They launched Sunshine Sunday - a day on which outlets around the country were urged to publish articles, columns, editorials, and editorial cartoons educating the public about freedom of information and the First Amendment.

This year, the American Society of Newspaper Editors will expand the effort to a full week. On March 13, the media will use Sunshine Week to convince Americans that government secrecy has gone too far - and that the media is working to stop it for the good of the public.

The biggest challenge may be convincing Americans that this is about them, not the media. "This isn't just a newspaper issue," says Steve Sidlo, chairman of the Associated Press Managing Editors' (APME) First Amendment Committee and managing editor at the Dayton [OH] Daily News. "We should all be concerned about government secrecy."

But while Sunshine Week's main objective is to inform the public of the importance of government openness, it also aims to remind Americans of the media's role in their lives. Such a reminder could be a way to repair the tarnished image of the media.

Changing the public's view

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says the media could use a dose of good PR. "It's not lost on us that media credibility has suffered over the last decade or more," she says. "A lot of times, when the issues are presented, it sounds like we're whining that our jobs are too hard."

Something like Sunshine Week is needed to expose the public to the challenges journalists face and how that relates to their lives. "We need to be more transparent," she adds.

Deanna Sands, president of APME and managing editor of the Omaha [NE] World-Herald, says that although the media is more aware of the First Amendment than the average person, it is primarily designed for the benefit of the general public.

Sands says that many people involved with Sunshine Week are hoping that it will be a vehicle to drive that message home.

"As [journalists] go forward in battle on First Amendment issues, we have to make sure that the public and readers understand that we're doing it for them," she says.

While the image of journalists has never been glowing, the last few years have done nothing to improve it. In fact, in a recent Gallup Poll, TV and newspaper reporters ranked only slightly above lawyers in terms of perceived honesty and ethics.

The fact that the media's true purpose, to inform and educate the public, has not been conveyed is the fault of the media itself. "We've done it to ourselves," Sands says.

Sidlo agrees that journalists are not typically considered to be working for the people. Although most journalists are passionate about the First Amendment, Sidlo says, they are perceived as not always having the public's interest in mind when filing lawsuits to get access to government records.

"I think we're seen as arrogant and a little less concerned about personal privacy of individuals than we should be," he adds. "So I think we should be listening to these kinds of concerns and communicating to people why we're doing what we're doing and how we're doing it."

Educating the public about its right to information, Sands says, ultimately gives power to the average American.

Another aim of Sunshine Week is to help the public identify better with journalists. Sands says that this has been difficult because the media often discusses the issues with other journalists, rather than sharing it with the public.

"We've been so consumed talking to each other that we've forgotten to talk to the people who really count," she says. "We are asking them to trust us and then we don't follow through, and they come away with a bad feeling."

Sands says Sunshine Week will serve as a starting point for another project APME is in the process of developing: a series of 10 roundtables discussing issues of importance to both journalists and the public. The roundtables will appear in newspapers around the country and will help to initiate conversations with readers.

The ultimate goal, she says, is to develop a model that will help other newspapers and media outlets have similar conversations with their readers and viewers that push away some of the misunderstanding about the media's role.

Facing skepticism

While the concept of Sunshine Week is something that should be applauded, Cliff Kincaid, editor of the Accuracy in Media report, notes that the fact that the media is behind it is ironic.

"The media has a big credibility problem with saying that they want to shine the light on government activities when so much of what journalism does has been exposed as less than honest," he says. "Let's face it: Not enough light has been shed on journalism practices."

Certain practices by journalists, such as using anonymous sources, Kincaid says, are almost counterintuitive to an initiative like Sunshine Week. He adds that the public might not be receptive to being told to ask for a more open government when the media itself won't open up.

"How can we believe the media is going to shine the light on government when so much of what they report is based on secret sources?" he asks. "I agree that the government has to be held to a higher standard. But for the media to come out and say they're going to do it when they've failed so miserably is laughable."

Kincaid says Sunshine Week could be nothing more than an attempt at an image makeover.

"This is a public relations effort on their part," he says. "They're trying to look good to the American people. They're trying to climb out of their own credibility problem by saying to the American people, 'We're really on your side.'"

Jamie Dettmer, director of media relations for the Cato Institute, says the Sunshine Week concept is long overdue.

 "Where have they been all these years?" he says. "They're coming a little bit late to this."

Dettmer says the issue of government secrecy is an important one for the public to hear, but Sunshine Week is not likely to improve the media's image. "They're going to have to do a lot of other things," he says. "I'm not too sure this will directly change their standing in the eyes of the public."

One thing that could help to change that image is educating the public about how the media works, says Stephen Hess, distinguished research professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University.

"Newspapers are particularly mysterious to the public, to their readers, which is one of the reasons that they're so suspicious of them," he says. "Newspapers have done an incredibly bad job of explaining how they're put together."

Transparency is something that could help the media become better understood, Hess adds.

Kincaid says it is something that could help the public take Sunshine Week more seriously. "They have to shine the light on their own operations, too," Kincaid says. "They can't shine the light on government unless they're more honest about their own failings."

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