Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Open Records Trends Still Concern Journalists

Journalists and government communicators need to understand and help each other "to keep our democracy proud and strong."

That opinion comes from Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, who addressed NAGC's 2008 Communications School in Albuquerque on Wednesday. Her topic was the Freedom of Information Act and other open records laws.

In her experience, which includes being a network news bureau chief, there is a direct correlation between news coverage and governments/agencies open records policies. “Those that were the most successful were the most open. Those that feared the worst were the most secretive.”

RTNDA, founded 62 years ago, has seen dramatic changes in the ways reporters may cover government agencies. At one point, the electronic press was barred in many federal events from bringing electronic equipment, even to news conference. Those barriers have largely disappeared, with the exception of federal courts, she says.

Progress continued, she notes, until the terrorist attacks in 2001. "Overnight, information disappeared from government Web sites," and the attitude toward openness with the press changed. Another dangerous trend she sees is the increased number of subpoenas demanding journalists sources and records.

While states and localities often have open records laws in place, that is not the case at the federal level, she says. RTNDA worked for passage for "The Open Government Act," but is concerned because of attempts to change the new law. The organization also is extending its annual "Sunshine Week" to a "Sunshine Campaign" that will last through the November elections. Part of the campaign is to get candidates to publicly support open records laws.

One other concern for the electronic media is the shift of newspapers to create more online content, which now includes audio and video reports. This could have an impact on local television stations, although those stations continue to be acknowledged by the public as its primary source of news.

How do you feel about the level of cooperation between your government agency and the press? Do you believe open records laws at the federal level should be tightened or loosened? If you are in Albuquerque, what other parts of Cochran's speech resonated with you?

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