The media is under attack. When the media is under attack, so are your rights.
This week marks Sunshine Week, a yearly reminder that our government doesn’t work quite as well as it ought to perform.
I know in the current political climate, when President Donald Trump attacks media outlets by name and calls them “fake news,” there isn’t widespread public support for the media. Some media outlets probably deserve some shame for letting their news stories cross the line into opinion under the guise of analysis instead of classifying them as opinions. We’re all guilty, in our personal and professional lives, of letting our individual views infiltrate our work.
As professional journalists at The Lima News, we try to limit it and be aware of our own biases and eliminate conflicts of interest.
But Sunshine Week isn’t just about the media. It’s about your ability to know your government releases the information it should.
Sunshine Week is about enforcing all of the laws, not just the convenient or popular ones. Yes, public records and open meetings laws do slow down government actions. That’s by design to make sure taxpayers are fully informed on what decision-makers do with your money and your government.
Just as importantly, these laws aren’t just for the media in Ohio. Everyone has the right to track the comings and goings of the government. You have just as much right to demand meeting minutes or a police report as a journalist does. Our reporters may be better trained on the letter and intent of the law, but that doesn’t mean they deserve anything more than you should get if you ask for the same thing.
I frequently take complaints from people who think we should’ve had more information in a story. People get upset when a name gets left out of a story, or there isn’t some key detail they think the public should know. Much of the time, it’s because the gatekeeper at whatever organization refused to share the detail, even if that detail is legally part of a public record.
If your government doesn’t release information that its own laws say it must, then there’s a problem.
We’ll continue to fight for access to this information. I routinely speak with heads of local agencies after they’ve withheld something about what their legal obligations are. We try to keep things cordial, since it’s a small world and we want to maintain a professional relationship. Most of the time, the mistake is out of misunderstanding an open records law versus a malicious intent to ignore the law.
There’s so much precedent and overlap between laws, the Ohio Attorney’s General Office maintains its “yellow book,” a manual explaining what courts ruled different pieces of the law mean in a practical world.
Following these rules have real-world consequences, even locally. The Putnam County commissioners, who were once my responsibility when I was a reporter a dozen years ago, continue to untangle the mess of skipping a few steps along the way when widening Road 5, a mistake that taxpayers have already paid dearly to try to rectify.
We all should try to understand the logical limits to what should be public and what should be private. Ohio’s open meetings laws are very specific, with seven common-sense reasons for executive sessions, such as discussing a case with an attorney, negotiating prices on a real estate transfer, or evaluating whether an employee should be terminated. Even then, the final decision must be voted on publicly.
The public has a right to know what its government does. There are laws to help you do it. So even if you don’t personally exercise that right, your local media appreciate your support as we exercise that right on your behalf.