What Is Role of Press in Economic Development Activities?

Article excerpt

It's the age-old question being raised again, one which has stood between the press and government and public officials in the United States since 1789 _ what is the public's right to know?

That question comes up cloudy more often, at least in my mind, when it deals with economic development and industrial recruiting.

Most large companies are lured into a particular area because of incentives, usually paid for by taxpayers, and they create much-needed jobs. The public is seldom, if ever, let in on these negotiations until the final contracts have been signed.

Chamber of commerce and economic development officials, along with industrial recruiters, say this shroud of secrecy is necessary because the prospective company is listening to sales pitches from dozens of communities, and public disclosure of an incentive package will tip off the competition. At the same time, officials with the prospective recruit don't want premature publicity about relocation or expansion negotiations for fear it will tip off their own competitors or even scare away good employees.

Both of these are valid concerns which should be honored by the press, as long as full disclosure is made public far enough in advance so taxpayers can balk if overeager recruiters give away more than they can earn back.

Too often, though, reporters in their zeal to be the first with the news of a potential major economic development event will publish rumors, sometimes unfounded, despite the sensitivity of particular negotiations. Sometimes this premature publicity can wreck negotiations, forcing the company to change its plans, then the community has lost that opportunity.

But what is the role of the press in economic development activities? Reporters are charged with the responsibility of finding out what's happening in the community and informing the public of this with an objective, unbiased view. All members of Oklahoma City's press corps understand the value of accuracy, honesty, impartiality and balance in their reporting, ensuring both sides are represented equally without prejudice.

Economic development officials are charged with bringing in companies and working to create a business environment in which jobs are created and the economy grows stronger. Sometimes these economic development officials are sponsored by a governmental entity using taxpayer money. Usually, though, they are members of a chamber of commerce or other private organization funded by dues or contributions of local businesses.

In the end, though, both end up using taxpayer money to fund the incentive packages.

Now comes the sticky part. Because taxpayer money is involved, does the public have the right to know everything that goes on in either the public or private economic development groups? Where is the line drawn as far as taxpayer money is concerned? If this group is allowed to operate in secrecy, what about other governmental agencies?

Because of this, most reporters, editors and news directors feel a sort of adversarial relationship with all public officials, anyone who handles public money or has a hand in creating laws or regulations which affect the public. This is as it should be. A free and unfettered press is absolutely necessary for good, or even mediocre, government.

No one within my acquaintance argues with this precept; we all know the value of a free press, no matter how much we may disagree, cuss and chastise what is written and broadcast. …