Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Time for a National Audit of Open Records

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Time for a National Audit of Open Records

Article excerpt

For the second time this year, newspapers have pooled their resources to test just how open the public records in their state really are. And for the second time, the distressing answer was: not very.

Replicating last February's "State of Secrecy" project by seven Indiana newspapers, more than 100 employees from 14 Virginia newspapers fanned out among the commonwealth's government agencies without identifying themselves as journalists. Their goal: to gauge how average citizens would fare when they asked to see routine public documents such as police logs, restaurant inspection reports, school coaches' salaries and travel vouchers for public employees. (See story on Page 24.) These open records auditors were rebuffed almost half the time. Just as in Indiana, the worst offenders were police and sheriff's departments - the very folks who are supposed to enforce the law. They complied with Virginia law only 16% of the time.

Now, none of this will come as news to reporters inured to the silent treatment of a typical cop shop beat, but it turns out the public is shocked to discover that the government officials - whose salaries they pay in taxes - regard public information - also paid for in tax dollars - as private property, not to be shared with the unwashed masses.

"These audits really capture public attention," says Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) president Wendy Myers. At a time when press credibility is under siege, these audits provide not only a valuable reminder to citizens of their own right to public information, but a concrete demonstration of the vital watchdog role newspapers play. …

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