Sunshine Week: Transparency in age of shadows
We live in dark times. Dark, that is, in terms of the flow of public information.
From the harsh accusation that reported news is “fake” to the surreal phenomenon of Russian troll farms, reporting news is an exercise of dealing with shadows. Nowhere is this more true than in politics and government.
“The main events in a political campaign used to happen in the open: a debate, the release of a major TV ad or a public event where candidates tried to earn a spot on the evening news or the next day’s front page,” wrote Nicholas Riccardi of The Associated Press in a report for this past week’s observance of Sunshine Week.
“Now some of a campaign’s most pivotal efforts happen in the often-murky world of social media, where ads can be targeted to ever-narrower slices of the electorate and run continuously with no disclosure of who is paying for them. Reporters cannot easily discern what voters are seeing, and hoaxes and forgeries spread instantaneously,” Riccardi wrote.
Both as a candidate and as president, President Donald Trump has taken control of his own news pronouncements, posting on Twitter, reaching millions of followers without the questions, challenges or fact-checks that reporters provide.
But while Trump is the most obvious example, the effects of social media and alternative news sources reach to the local level.
Information and opinions are “shared” among Facebook friends and Twitter followers of like minds, without the balance that a news-gathering organization can provide.
“The problem is something that’s always existed ... but social media is a different animal than news distribution in the past,” noted Garlin Gilchrist, executive director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan, in the AP report.
Sunshine Week was started in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to promote efforts for open government and public access to information.
In years past, reporters at newspapers like this one visited police departments or township buildings to request as citizens public documents or meeting minutes. Results were documented to demonstrate if the right-to-know and public access laws are working.
This year’s Sunshine Week observance has focused more on a hard look at the dangers facing the free flow of information. These include manipulation by foreign government and fringe political groups using social media and websites as their forums of falsehood and hate.
On a national level, much of the reporting during Sunshine Week March 11-17 highlighted the Trump administration’s policies that turn back progress on the free flow of information. An AP analysis widely reported this week showed that the federal government censored or withheld public records more often during the past year than in the previous 10 years.
And while the free flow of information to legitimate news sources is curtailed, rumors and falsehoods on the web and social media can spread and grow. What to do? Who to trust? In an experiment reported just before the start of Sunshine Week, New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo made a conscious and determined effort to get all news from print newspapers for two months. He turned off digital news notifications, unplugged from social networks and subscribed to home delivery of three newspapers.
He wrote that the experiment was “life-changing” with fewer distractions, more indepth understanding of events and issues, and more time in his day.
“You realize how much of what you get online isn’t quite news, and more like a neverending stream of commentary, one that does more to distort your understanding of the world than illuminate it,” he wrote.
Manjoo’s experiment has a message relevant to Sunshine Week.
In this age of shadow information, news consumers have a responsibility to seek out transparency from wherever news and information flows. Your choice may be print or it may be digital, but be mindful of its source.
Sunshine Week is set aside for journalists to seek transparency in government; in turn journalists vow to be accurate and transparent in their reporting.
We ask that you honor that commitment with the choices you make in getting the news.