Sunshine Week a ray of hope amid challenges

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

This week marks Sunshine Week, set aside to recognize the importance of government transparency and public access.

That’s near and dear to the hearts of journalists — and it should be important to all citizens as well. After all, decisions made by our city councils, state legislatures and Congress impact our lives and our pocketbooks. Witnessing and knowing about those decisions, and how our tax money is spent, is the right of every one of us.

During Sunshine Week, we make a point of reminding readers just how important government access is and how difficult it can be to discern the truth these days.

Technology is a double-edged sword in the area of transparency. Internet access has made millions of government documents far more available to citizens:

Long an advocate for transparency, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley was the driving force behind the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which allows patients to see just what payments doctors receive from pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers of medical devices.The City of Dubuque uses Open Budget, an online tool through which citizens can navigate the city budget and drill down through departmental expenses and revenues. While the data is dense, the site is pretty easy to use and provides data in a visual way, making it easier to grasp. From court records to public employee salaries to legislative bill tracking, Iowa and other states have made records searches so much easier for citizens.

But technology has also given rise to the rampant spreading of rumor and fake news.

Instances range from social-media posts by the parent who claims he knows what really happened in the recent fight between some teenagers in Dubuque to the coordinated campaign by Russia to interfere with U.S. elections.

Just last week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published its research revealing that false information on Twitter travels six times faster than the truth — and the fake information reaches far more people, typically because the false is more curious and provocative.

What’s the adage about a lie traveling around the world before the truth puts on its boots?

Before you blame the Twitterer-in-chief, you should know that this research was completed before Donald Trump was sworn into office. It looked at thousands of stories tweeted millions of times between 2006 and the end of 2016. Fake news on Twitter spread “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

Now, like most news outlets, we at the Telegraph Herald use social media. It expands our reach and gets information to readers with an immediacy that print cannot. But if you are like most Twitter users, your feed is loaded with noise. Sorting out the truth from the fiction is probably more difficult than you think.

The rise of fake news — and of politicians (and not just the president) slapping the “fake” label on information that is accurate but unflattering — has made journalists’ jobs more difficult. But at the same time it has elevated the vital importance of that job. Researched, verified and credible information needs to stand out from the noise.

This Sunshine Week, we celebrate the efforts of media, elected officials and citizens to make government more accessible. And we promise to advocate for openness against all who would thwart those efforts.