By Kelly Shannon
Whether depending on our government for storm recovery, good schools, police protection or other important services, openness and access to information are essential to ensuring the job gets done.
A free flow of information helps citizens keep watch on their government. It also allows journalists to report on matters of widespread interest by scrutinizing public records and meetings and, just as importantly, asking necessary, tough questions of government officials.
In short, transparency leads to real news. It leads to the truth.
Legitimate news organizations uncover what has actually happened – and even look at what could plausibly happen in the future.
One example is the Texas Tribune and ProPublica report last year based on maps and extensive interviews examining how Houston’s rapid development made it vulnerable to heavy flooding in torrential rainstorms. During the recent rain dump of Tropical Storm Harvey, the journalists checked in again on residents they’d met who were indeed suffering through this horrific round of flooding. They did real reporting.
The term “fake news” that’s frequently used these days is on point when it’s meant to denounce made-up Internet articles designed to incite fear or hate or to simply gain clicks. It’s not a label a public official should throw around to criticize professional journalists for delivering a message the official doesn’t like.
Sometimes false or misleading information comes from government officials themselves, and journalists set the record straight.
The Austin American-Statesman used public records and other reporting to examine the deaths of nearly 300 people who died in police custody in Texas. In certain cases, including the death of 18-year-old Graham Dyer who died while in Mesquite Police Department custody after being shocked with a Taser multiple times and suffering other injuries, the details revealed in government records differed from the official police version.
The Waco Tribune-Herald recently cited state education rankings and emails in reporting on the Marlin Independent School District’s continued low rating by the Texas Education Agency. The district’s superintendent accused the Tribune-Herald of fabricating the news. The newspaper responded by, again, citing the public records as evidence.
In-depth reporting can happen in Texas in large part because of longstanding laws protecting the people’s right to know. The Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act originated more than 40 years ago because the Legislature realized the public must be able to find out what their government is doing.
Unfortunately, some loopholes developed in the Public Information Act through the years, and now Texas court decisions have further watered down the law by placing more government records off limits.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas will explore the latest legislative and judicial activity on open government and the role of legitimate news gathering at its annual state conference “Transparency = Real News” on Sept. 14 in Austin. Several lawmakers will join other public officials, attorneys, journalists and business people at the conference to offer their viewpoints.
Meanwhile, an effort is under way to have lawmakers study the Public Information Act before the 2019 legislative session and make recommendations on how to improve the statute that was once so strong and made Texas a leader in information access.
Individual Texans will play a pivotal role in that process in the coming months. Those who care about open government and understand that it’s crucial for our democracy must to speak out and let their elected leaders know they support the public’s right to know.
Transparency was the Texas way for decades. It’s time to come together and embark, once again, on the road to openness and truth.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a non-profit based in Austin and dedicated to promoting open government and the First Amendment rights of free speech and press.