Sometimes we have to remind ourselves why all of this is important. Here are a few examples, right out of the principles of journalism playbook.
The first, from Syracuse.com and The Post-Standard:
“The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. … The legislature therefore declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government …”
We’re quoting from the preamble of New York state’s Freedom of Information Law. It requires governments to release records of their activities, with some exceptions, so that taxpayers know where their money is being spent and how their government is performing. FOIL is a powerful tool for demanding accountability.
Alas, saying “government is the public’s business,” and acting like it is, are two different things. Government agencies and officials routinely resist public disclosure.
The second, closer to home, is from The Anniston Star:
The press-freedom portion of the First Amendment is a compact between the Founders and future generations. A strong democracy depends on journalism to keep government honest. This applies from the top all the way to the bottom — from details about the federal government’s expansive domestic-spying program all the way down to the goings and comings of a county’s criminal justice system.
“Democracies die behind closed doors,” wrote a federal judge in 2002. A journalist’s job is to pry those doors open. Someone should keep an eye on the courts, the city council and the streets department, to cite a few local examples.
Human nature tends to cut corners if no one is looking. And the kind of corners we’re talking about — public safety, criminal charges, proper bid processing involving taxpayer dollars — can come with a steep price, in terms of money and, occasionally, human life.