The Elon University Poll by the shocking numbers:
* 65 — the percentage of North Carolinians unaware that laws exist to make public records accessible to everyone.
* 58 — the percentage who think that the email of government employees should be private.
* 5 — the number of news organizations that have reported these results.
Why shocking? News organizations fulfill their public service commitment to democracy by reporting on the actions of government. They attend government meetings, search through public records and file lawsuits to open doors politicians and bureaucrats try to shut. These results should alarm every journalist who believes in the direct connection between openness and good government.
Many news stories about government malfeasance have been verified by public employee emails. Because of the way government is conducted today, making those emails private is the same as making all written correspondence private.
That is to say, bad for democracy.
The deal is pretty simple. When tax money pays your salary, then the public is your boss. Bosses get to see emails. Bosses get to look at how you are conducting business in your name. Bosses get to drop in on meetings of their employees if they want to. If you want to operate in secret, then go into the private sector. Of course, many public employees don’t agree with this or don’t know it. Sadly, most North Carolinians don’t either.
Journalists celebrate Sunshine Week. The N.C. Open Government Coalition maintains a center at Elon University with the purpose to help people get access to public records and meetings, and to advocate for open government. Clearly it has its work cut out for it. All of the state’s journalists should join the effort.
One more figure:
* 3 — the percentage of people who trust state and federal government to do what’s right just about always.
How to improve the level of trust? Openness and transparency. Who must be the first at the bulwarks and sounding the call? Journalists.
** I am the communication director of the Elon University Poll.