Information is power — if you have access to it.
That’s what makes transparency so important in a democracy. How do we know if elected officials are fulfilling their responsibilities? Or if they’re adequately representing the people who put them in office? Or if they are they good stewards of taxpayers’ money?
The answers to those questions are subject to interpretation, but not without basic information on budgets, resources, voting records, contracts.
Journalists request public records every day in the course of their work. In the best cases, officials immediately, and without cost, produce the requested records. In many instances, journalists avail themselves of the Freedom of Information Act, which legally compels public entities to release the data to which the public is entitled.
Why the insistence on access to public records?
Accountability. Of public officials, of political candidates, of activists, advocates and journalists. Public records can help piece together the truth and provide meaningful context to issues.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” said the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
That statement’s been tested in recent years in the climate of fake news, biased news sources and inflammatory social media.
Fake news has become a rallying cry for people who disagree with a point of view. Solid journalistic reporting points readers back to the facts and records from which the story was derived.
The closer a reader gets to the original information, the more confidence they can have in its veracity.
That’s why public records and transparency are significant — not just for journalists but for everyday citizens. In fact, everyday citizens need transparency more than journalists, who often are afforded greater access because of their positions.
The best public entities are quick to respond to records requests, recognizing the rights of the citizenry to be informed. Other entities drag their heels, consistently looking for ways to limit information rather than share it. Which of these entities do you want making decisions for you?
Government work should be done in the light of transparency.
Citizens have the right to know how much city of Lansing department heads earn, or how Michigan State University handles allegations of sexual assault or whether state agencies follow their own protocols.
Access to public records is a vital part of that transparency — one that should never be taken for granted.
— This editorial originally appeared in The Lansing State Journal on March 11.