March 10-16 is Sunshine Week. It’s when news organizations celebrate and promote openness in government through writing about trends with government transparency, holding events and generally explaining how things like FOIA laws work.
We caught up with Kevin M. Goldberg, who provides legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors and is a driving force behind Sunshine Week.
Here’s our interview with him.
First, can you tell us a little about the history of Sunshine Week?
Sunshine Week is the outgrowth of “Sunshine Sunday,” which began in Florida in 2002 as a project of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. ASNE co-opted Sunshine Sunday and, with support from several non-profits and newspaper companies, eventually expanded it to Sunshine Week in 2005. ASNE was able to maintain that funding for several years to the point where we were able to build a Sunshine Week website, which serves as a repository of valuable content dating back several years, as well as a central repository for events occurring around the country. At its apex, Sunshine Week had a full-time coordinator who worked for months before the actual week to start cultivating and curating content, doing media outreach and running social media. After a few years, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press came on board as a co-organizer.
We’re actually hoping to secure funding to bring back that full-time coordinator in a way that can effectively make Sunshine Week a year-round project. By that, I mean a repository for open government-related stories and other media that are published or broadcast outside of just the traditional “Sunshine Week” and also perhaps to have another celebration of some kind, whether it’s a single day conference or another entire week, in the fall to keep the momentum going.
Today, how do you and news organizations celebrate it?
The manner of celebrating Sunshine Week hasn’t changed much through the years. In addition to coordinating the Sunshine Week website, which contains the calendar of events nationwide. This is a mix, by the way, of events held by federal, state and local governments in addition to private sector events. ASNE has, for the past few years, also helped organize and plan the National Freedom of Information Day Conference that has been held at the Newseum for almost 20 years. This year’s conference will be held on March 8 and has an exciting agenda, featuring a keynote by Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight and Reform committee, a look at the changes in transparency under the Trump Administration, the growing privatization of traditional government functions and how this affects oversight of those activities, and, for the first time, a look at court transparency.
We have also helped coordinate reporting projects among our membership – sometimes involving collaboration by competing papers or companies – that will be offered as a package to papers around the country. “The Vault” section of the Sunshine Week website contains links to much of this reporting. There are also some fantastic editorials and op-eds written each year, as well as public service announcements in support of open government run by television and radio stations and editorial cartoons.
Some publications will include a special “Sunshine Week” icon which could be placed in a story to show when open records were used in compiling the story. Others have taken the reform process into their own hands, drafting legislation for introduction by local legislators. Of course, legislative or other hearings are popular during Sunshine Week and representatives of the press often testify at those hearings.
Others are more fun, including:
• The holding of Twitter chats, “Tweetups” or Google hangouts to create an interactive discussion with the community.
• A contest sponsored by a university for the best student-created “infographic” about open records or open meetings
• A “FOIA Fest” held by a local journalism group in Chicago to teach people how to file a FOIA request, how to better negotiate and mediate with government officials to get records and how to work with documents and data once received.
• A technology meetup for computer programmers who want to discuss better ways to use government information to inform the public
• And some of my favorites: potluck dinners, happy hours, and even the brewing of a “Sunshine Wheat” beer a few years ago.
How can news organizations explain to their audience what is happening around access to public information and the importance of more openness?
The first thing they can do is remember this isn’t about the media. That’s implicit in your question, I know, but it bears repeating over and over, especially now. The key, like anything else in life, is to make the issue relatable. That requires finding stories that affect their daily lives that have been brought to light through the use of open records and, perhaps more importantly, highlighting what the public doesn’t know because it is being shut out by governments. Favor the anecdotal over the theoretical or statistical and the local over the national. Make it clear how lives have been (or will be) affected by access to open records.
Some of my favorite examples to use are:
• In September 2011, we learned that the American Red Cross had problems ensuring a safe blood supply, eighteen years after a federal court ordered the group to upgrade its procedures;
• A February 2007 story from MSNBC which relied on FOIA to identify the deaths of 15 firefighters who died since 1998 in fires in which safety equipment failed or malfunctioned;
• Also in February 2007, with residents of New Orleans still digging out from Hurricane Katrina, the Associated Press and other news organizations reported that 122 levees across the country were in jeopardy of failing, according to an Army Corps of Engineers list released under FOIA. Homeowners who live near the levees could be required to buy flood insurance, according to an official with the National Flood Insurance Program.
• In August 2005, Public Citizen used FOIA to obtain non-compliance records from the (USDA) which showed that slaughter plants lacked sufficient plans for handling tainted meat.
• In May 2011, Glen Milner, a resident of the State of Washington, emerged victorious at the Supreme Court after a years long fight to obtain records relating to the handling of explosive munitions at a naval base in his hometown.
How can news organizations get involved with Sunshine Week through your organization?
They should definitely check out the Sunshine Week website to get ideas about how to participate, especially in terms of writing editorials or op-eds. Consider picking up and running content if offered for republication. They can follow the Sunshine Week Twitter account (@SunshineWeek) and retweet through their own accounts. They should feel free to take some of the ideas discussed above and run with them. And they can definitely turn to me for help in background in putting anything together at email@example.com
Mostly, they should have fun, be inventive and make open records and open meetings come alive in a way that resonates with the community because, above all else, transparency isn’t a media issue, it benefits all of us.