Good morning, Sunshine

The N.C. Press Association has provided a great public service by posting a guide to open government and records on its site.

This new booklet has been published jointly by the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office and the North Carolina Press Association. All of the answers have been carefully crafted by lawyers to make the law as easy to understand as possible.

Also on the site: the open meetings law and the public records law.

Unfrtunately, it’s likely you will need to consult often.

While you’re at it, Sunshine Week begins tomorrow. North Carolina’s big event is at Elon University on Wednesday.

Quit screwing around; to regain trust, it’s time to change

Craig Newmark’s survey on the credibility of various news sources is simply the latest that shows the public doesn’t have much trust in mainstream media. Not much trust in any of the mainstreamers: newspapers, TV, radio or news websites. (Yep, news websites are mainstream now.)

The survey shows that only 22 percent of respondents say that newspapers are “very credible” in reporting on politics. And that’s the top rating. Cable and network news get 21 percent, and talk radio and Internet news sites each register 13 percent.

For years, traditional news organizations have marketed themselves as trustworthy. It’s time to acknowledge that most people aren’t buying it. That bond of trust may be irrevocably broken.

So, how about we try something different? What if mainstream media covered politics differently, focusing less on the horse race and more on the issues? What if television rambled on less about, say, the Catholic Church’s fight with the Obama administration over contraception insurance and delved deeper into health insurance, period? What if the time spent dissecting who made what gaffe after each GOP debate — and forcing viewers to listen to the candidate’s handler explain what he really meant — was actually spent talking about Romney’s time at Bain, Santorum’s voting record in the Senate or Paul’s record in the House?

What if the reporters actually had the freedom to call BS when candidates or campaigns parsed the truth? (Here’s an attempt.) What if they followed the Daily Show model in covering the hypocrisy of some political candidates and government policies (without the humor, presumably)? What if television actually gave more than a soundbite and didn’t let candidates off the hook? Watch the morning news programs and it’s either he-said, she-said journalism, or the reporter asks a question, the candidate doesn’t answer, and the reporter moves to another question that the candidate doesn’t answer. In the end, the viewer gets little sustenance.

One of the common assumptions is that the public doesn’t like the sausage-making process that hard-nosed reporting is. They think it’s intrusive and rude, and it often is. Good interviewing often makes people uncomfortable because the reporter is trying to pull the truth together and match facts with what’s being said. It does get ugly. But I think the general public wants to see reporters who are independent and boldly seeking to get answers to the questions the public has. (And that isn’t which GOP candidate is leading in the polls today or an embarrassing video of Romney singing “God Bless America.”)

It’s also transparent, and transparency builds trust. (Think it doesn’t? Think of how you feel when a news exec declines to talk about something going on at his shop? Or think about your reaction when you hear a news exec who has announced layoffs say, “it won’t impact our news coverage.”)

Case in point: Jay Rosen and NYU Studio 20 took a look at the questions posed to the GOP candidates at all of the 20 debates and asked if it reflected the “citizens agenda.” (113 questions were asked about campaign strategies and negative ads!) Rosen suggested that last night’s debate viewers pose their own questions on Twitter with the hashtag #unasked. As Jay tweeted afterward, “Number of questions tonight about science: zero. Technology: zero. Climate change: zero. Small business: zero.”

There is a reason that the trust bond is broken between the public and the news media. It’s us.

Quick congrats

Congratulations to the Charlotte Observer for winning a McClatchy President’s Award for journalism excellence in 2011. It won for its series on car inspections. The Observer’s four-part series “Failing the Test” found a sprawling government program full of problems with little evidence of improving highway safety. “This is the kind of watchdog work that affects just about everybody,” the judges said. The series made the case so convincingly that it led to immediate response from lawmakers.

Congratulations to the News & Record for an editorial calling out the City Council for denying the public a chance to evaluate candidates for the city manager’s job. This would take place under a cover of cloak-and-dagger secrecy, slipping candidates in and out of interviews without letting them see each other, the public or, especially, nosy journalists. But if the council trusts (recruiter) Burg to produce six or seven “highly qualified” candidates, and trusts its own judgment to narrow that number to two, why not trust the public to form impressions of those final two?

Congratulations to the N&O for an editorial demanding the Wake County Sheriff reveal details of a death in the county jail.  Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who is responsible for operation of the jail, has demonstrated that he unfortunately isn’t inclined to share what ought to be public information with the citizens he serves, unless he has no other choice. The sheriff’s resistance to openness isn’t appropriate for a publicly elected official and in cases such as incidents in the jail, his penchant for secrecy damages his credibility.

Congratulations, too, to the News & Record for hiring Jeffrey Gauger to become its next editor, succeeding me! I don’t know him, but have talked with him on the phone. I think he’ll be good.

Who represents the public’s interests?

One of the great divides between journalists and public officials is over access to public information. Stated simplistically, journalists want more access; public officials want less.

Journalists represent the public when they attend meetings and seek information. They do that, not because it’s fun, but so they can pass the information onto readers and viewers. Obviously, voters put elected officials into office to represent their interests.

Who’s right? Let’s look and you decide. Courtesy of the N.C. Press Association, here are a few of the recent skirmishes between the press and elected officials.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: When the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board agrees to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a lawsuit, it does so in closed session.

From the News & Record: Greensboro City Council voted to NOT notify the public when small groups of council members meet with city staff members to discuss policy.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times: The paper sues the Henderson County sheriff, the board of commissioners and the county’s insurance carrier in an effort to force them to release details of a settlement involving the sheriff and a female employee.

From the Lincoln Times-News: The Lincolnton City Council met privately and decided to threaten to sue a local website for libel.

From the Brunswick Beacon:  The chairman of the Board of Social Services may be removed from his chairmanship for repeatedly violating the state’s open meetings law.

From the Alamance News: Burlington City Council met behind closed doors to order up a new city incentives policy.

Don’t get me wrong; some of the actions above are allowed under state law. That doesn’t mean, though, that they represent the best interests of the public. When people can’t see what’s going on they lose trust in government, and trust is a precious commodity these days.

The publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times said it best in the story about its lawsuit.

“This isn’t the county’s money or the sheriff’s money,” Randy Hammer said. “We are going to court because this is money that belongs to people who live, work and pay taxes in Henderson County. It’s their money. And they have a right to know how it’s being spent, especially if the county is having to pay extra money because the sheriff mismanaged his responsibilities as a public servant.”