It’s Sunshine Week (March 14-20), the national celebration of open records and transparency. We have also just passed the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although many of us were hunkered down — avoiding travel, physical contact and large gatherings to keep ourselves safe — news and events of importance kept moving. Journalists kept — and keep on — reporting, bringing light and the public into conversations that shape our communities.
Local news outlets, such as this publication, kept their traditional focus on the community. Local news helped neighbors make sense of the pandemic and stay informed and connected. Reporters, recognized as essential personnel, did not miss a beat. Members of the public turned to their local news outlets in huge numbers, driving up website page views and increasing news audiences. At the same time, advertising, one of the main sources of revenue for news outlets, dried up. Fulfilling its commitment to the public, many news organizations removed paywalls or provided expanded coverage to help their communities. No matter what happens, news media does not shut down or give up.
Governments continued their work during the pandemic, too, albeit without as much public scrutiny, as meetings were moved to conference and Zoom calls, and access was limited. Procurement contracts were signed, deals struck and policies formulated. Out of those sometimes opaque discussions, all that remains are the public records. Journalism is a critical conduit for the public to understand government actions, and public records are an essential tool to provide context for those actions. Transparency and access to public records are critical to journalists’ roles. News media stands in for the public and acts as a watchdog.
People’s interest in government information is a window into what is important to them — and it showcases the effect government has on people’s lives. There are barriers to access — time, money and knowledge, among others. All too often, the public — and journalists — are left with limited options when their requests for information are denied by records custodians. We all must work toward making government records more available to everyone.
In Maryland, advocates, including the MDDC Press Association, are working toward passage of a major reform to the Public Information Act. House Bill 183, sponsored by Delegate Brooke Lierman, expands the jurisdiction and power of the existing Public Information Act Compliance Board to make binding decisions and resolve disputes between records custodians and requesters of public records. This is an important step forward that will help ensure more equitable access to government records.
Support both journalism and transparency of government during Sunshine Week and every week. Strong local news outlets encourage and support their communities and are a critical part of an open and democratic society.
Rebecca Snyder is the executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC (MDDC) Press Association.