By Betsy Wells Edwards
We all remember the BIG news stories in our lives — the ones that changed our view of the world, or of government or maybe just our own community.
I remember reading about Watergate in the 1970s and wondering how Woodward and Bernstein put together all the facts to uncover such an important story. In 2010, it hit a little closer to home when Daniel Gilbert, at the Bristol Herald Courier, uncovered how a state board allowed energy companies to funnel off millions of dollars in royalties owed to people in an impoverished part of Southwest Virginia.
More recently, we all read about how the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, is unfit for human consumption due to the high levels of lead it contains. This story got enough attention that it became an issue during the 2016 presidential campaign.
These big stories are shocking in what they reveal about our government. Sometimes they remain a topic of conversation for weeks or even months and years. Watergate was so important that “gate” has become a buzzword attached to every new government scandal. To a certain extent, we take it for granted that someone — usually the press — will uncover these misdeeds and reveal them to us.
This is investigative journalism at its best and something we shouldn’t take for granted. Uncovering the facts behind these stories required weeks, months and even years of work on the part of reporters and concerned citizens. The story is usually told by a journalist who got a tip from a citizen or a government employee. Yes, investigative journalism requires a partnership between the media and the public. It also requires the public to trust that the media will investigate tips, uncover records and data, and shine a light on the inner workings of government.
This partnership needs to be constantly nurtured and strengthened. The partnership, however, is a relationship with three members. The third member is the government.
There is a constant dance among the media, the government, and the public to uncover, share and utilize information. This information doesn’t flow just one way. The public often learns about government workings through the media — and in the reverse, the government finds out about the attitudes and requirements of the public from the media.
At the center of this relationship is the Freedom of Information Act.
This July 4th is the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Virginia’s FOIA was passed a year later, in 1968. FOIA was created to provide the public with access to the workings of its government. The fact that the legislation was needed demonstrates the natural tension that has always existed between those who serve in government and the public.
Most people outside of government or the media have never heard of FOIA, but they have probably had their lives changed by it. The big stories are sometimes difficult to read because they reveal discrimination, incompetence and corruption within our government. However, these revelations often lead to new laws and better policies that make our lives and our communities safer and fairer.
The value of the Freedom of Information Act is not limited to big stories and national scandals. FOIA also serves as a way for the public and the press to learn about the more mundane workings of government.
FOIA is more than a law — it is a policy statement. It reminds government employees that they work for the people and the work they carry out can and should be reviewed by the public. The act conveys to the public that the “right to know” is fundamental and should be respected by government. As for the press, they see FOIA as the ultimate safeguard of open government.
As important as FOIA is, it needs to be used sparingly. Most public or press inquiries can and should be made without using FOIA. We all need to be comfortable making requests for government documents and records.
Requests for government information by the public and the media are not always going to lead to the big stories. They may simply let us know when the next school board meeting is being held or that funding for our neighborhood park system has been increased.
Open government and the free flow of information should not be something done only when required by FOIA. Our window into government should be open every day — regardless of the weather.
Betsy Wells Edwards is the executive director of the Virginia Press Association, and is the author of “Virginia Country: Inside the Historic Homes of the Old Dominion.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Originally published in the March 17, 2017 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch as part of Sunshine Week)