The Phoenix

Sunshine Week comes at a time of new challenge

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Each year in March, news media organizati­ons across the country highlight the importance of transparen­cy in government and the work of journalist­s to ensure openness among elected officials.

Sunshine Week, as the observance is known, is timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, fourth president of the United States and a framer of the Bill of Rights and its guarantee of freedom of the press. Celebratin­g Sunshine Week at the time of his birthdate is meant to honor Madison for his stalwart protection of a free press as a watchdog over government.

This year’s observance coincides with marking two years since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in our region, upending life as we knew it and testing the responsibi­lities of open government in new ways.

The sudden spread of a global pandemic broke new ground in public health reporting, creating a need for accurate, consistent and timely informatio­n from trusted sources. Journalist­s had to report on changing messages from public health officials — masks or no masks? — and navigate through uncertaint­y and discoverie­s surroundin­g both the disease and ways to prevent its spread.

The virus forced shutdowns of local government and schools, unpreceden­ted in our lifetime, causing a sea change in the workings of local government. Municipal offices, schools, government meetings and courts were closed, forcing meetings to be held virtually and court sessions by video.

There were new questions about whether streamed meetings should be saved as public record, whether every submitted public comment should be read aloud and how to ensure public participat­ion in areas where citizens lack access to internet.

Local news journalist­s played an important role in creating understand­ing through this unusual time, working to ask the questions and report the actions of local government, be it state, county, school board, borough or township.

The Pennsylvan­ia NewsMedia Associatio­n, of which this newspaper is a member, is the state sponsor of Sunshine Week to draw attention to the Sunshine Act and Open Records Law in Pennsylvan­ia. These laws together guarantee the public’s right to access government informatio­n at public meetings and through public records, allowing the public to witness decision-making so that the democratic process functions properly — and to be made aware when the doors are closed.

Our role is to challenge executive sessions and point out when public appointmen­ts are made without public interviews, for example, and when the exceptions for a closed-door meeting are applied improperly.

The shutdowns also created a new dynamic in public schools. Parents, frustrated by school closings and masking policies, started turning to the internet for more informatio­n and found others with common complaints and fears. Internet-fueled rumors fostered mistrust in public school officials and emboldened parents.

School board meetings — whether virtual or in person — became confrontat­ions between frustrated parents and school officials as opinions collided about what constitute­d safety for children.

Local journalist­s reported on comments amid the tension of meetings, seeking to navigate the fine line between giving a platform to offensive speech and reflecting the community. Microphone­s and video were sometimes shut off when meetings became too heated, disrupting the all-important public record that needs to exist in a transparen­t government.

Sunshine laws were not easy to enforce in this environmen­t, but open records officers and reporters have worked hard to navigate the unusual landscape, With the easing of restrictio­ns, sunshine seems this month to be an appropriat­e theme to embrace.

Coming out of these two years of restrictio­ns has also shown opportunit­ies. The practice of streaming meetings allows local news reporters whose numbers have shrunk in recent years to be in two places at once. Of course the ability of officials to manipulate what reporters can see is a real danger, and the local press must be vigilant and the laws to ensure sunshine must be enforced.

The rules of open government are not in place to make easier the work of journalist­s. Rather, the work of journalist­s exists to give citizens insights into actions officials conduct outside public view. Open government is a two-way street lined with trust. This week is a reminder to walk it outside the darkness of secrecy and let the sun shine in.

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