It’s not too late to prepare for the third national Sunshine Week, March 11-17. The public education campaign is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and will be joined this year with a similar awareness week in Mexico. Here are six easy ways to foster freedom of information in your newsroom and community.
1. Make access personally relevant
Sunshine Week Coordinator Debra Gersh Hernandez says the most effective projects emphasize the practical usefulness of records for citizens’ everyday life. For example, WCNC-TV 6News in Charlotte, N.C., produced a series of stories in 2005 telling viewers how to get family histories, real estate records and other useful information.
The Idaho Statesman, also in 2005, published stories all week focused on practical documents. On the day the Boise paper published a link to the county assessor’s office, Web traffic surged, causing the Web site to temporarily shut down.
2. Highlight societal benefits
It might be too late to finish a full-blown public records audit of local or state agencies by March 11, but there is enough time to examine records closures and successes from the past year.
The Dayton Daily News in 2005 wrote about citizens who used documents to fight local officials who proposed landfills and a new airport runway. The Detroit Free Press provided examples of how its reporters used open records to illuminate problems in the community. Last year, The Oklahoman incorporated a Sunshine Week logo with every story published during the week that was based on open records or meetings.
3. Talk it up
Some news organizations host forums, essay contests and televised panel discussions to get people talking about government openness. Interactive Web sites and blogs facilitate online discussion.
In 2005, governors in a dozen states made proclamations to recognize Sunshine Week, and some newspapers, such as the San Jose Mercury News, have drafted better public records legislation and offered it up for discussion and potential adoption.
4. Take a stand
Editorials, columns and editorial cartoons are effective ways to support Sunshine Week. Examples of op-ed pieces are provided on the Sunshine Week Web site, www.sunshineweek.org. Also, ready-to-use public service ads and announcements are available online for print, radio and television.
5. Fire up co-workers
Get your co-workers jazzed about FOI. At the Sunshine Week Web site, you can find more than 60 professional editorial cartoons about access. Print out your favorites and tack them to your cubicle walls.
You can also get posters, orange “Govern in sunshine” wristbands, and other merchandise, including buttons, T-shirts, mugs and my favorite, a Sunshine Week teddy bear for $16.89 (great for kids or if you need comfort after a particularly frustrating records request denial).
Schedule a newsroom brown-bag lunch to discuss access in your community, brainstorm document-driven story ideas, and share FOI strategies. Training tips are provided online as part of the Sunshine Week “Editors’ Tools,” or you can find SPJ PowerPoint training presentations and handouts at www.spj.org/foiddnr.asp.
6. Break new ground
Come up with something creative and new. Peter Leidy and Bill Lueders of Wisconsin recorded the “Open Records Blues,” available for listening at the Sunshine Week Web site. Open the Government has a great animated video at www.openthe government.org titled “Are we safer in the dark?” that is patterned after the popular online JibJab animations.
Check out the “Bright Ideas” publications at the Sunshine Week Web site spotlighting some of the best projects from the past two years. Contact your Sunshine Week state or regional coordinator, also available at the Web site, for more ideas or to join projects already started in your area. If you don’t do it, who will?