Arkansas citizens have even more reason this year to appreciate the state law that grants them access to most government meetings and records.
It gives citizens, not just journalists, the right to know what their cities, counties and state government are doing.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, but the law gives Arkansans the access necessary to try.
That has always been an important aspect of Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act. It is all the more important in the current climate when the president of the United States seems bent on destroying the credibility of the American media.
He’s had enough success that officials at other levels of government are mimicking his cries of “fake news.” It is an easy weapon against unflattering reporting, even if the reporting is true. Discredit the source, discredit the information.
If the practice succeeds, if the anti-media cheering heard at President Trump’s rallies broadens to the larger news-consuming population, beware the cost to the free flow of information.
They’re trying to kill the messenger.
It is hardly a new idea. Even Sophocles warned against killing the messenger.
To be sure, the tactic isn’t working against behemoths like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NBC and other national outlets that have been Trump’s constant foils.
But what about the smaller publications or news organizations, many of which have struggled to stay alive as people rely more and more on social media to source their news?
Never mind that platforms like Facebook and Twitter abound with misinformation, sometimes undistinguishable from legitimate news in these electronic feeds.
Granted, that trend has been around longer than the Trump presidency. It has just worsened as time goes by and is augmented by these attacks on journalists.
It has long been the role of journalists to monitor and report how public officials spend tax money, reach policy decisions, serve and protect their constituents.
That hasn’t changed. Journalists in this state, like those throughout the world, will keep doing their jobs in some form — whatever the obstacles.
But journalists’ ability to do that job is impacted by this societal trend and by the mockery of the media led by our press-bashing president.
The newspaper you’re reading now, the local television station, all media outlets must make choices on how they use their resources. Those resources are funded through advertising, subscriptions and the like. When those resources shrink, so does coverage of the government (and more).
Just think of the numbers of journalists laid off in recent years at publications of all sizes and how many fewer reporters are there to help cover the news.
That’s the point of this reminder on the value of Arkansas’ citizen-centered Freedom of Information Act.
If the media isn’t always looking over the shoulders of government, citizens can use the law to do it themselves. A downloadable handbook on the law is available from the state attorney general’s office or the Arkansas Press Association.
The Arkansas FOI Act is among the many state and federal “sunshine laws” intended to assure transparency in the different levels of government and is being celebrated this week as part of national Sunshine Week.
The event is sponsored annually by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. For more information, visit sunshineweek.org online.
Better yet, support the press by subscribing to a newspaper, buying advertising or frequenting those who do advertise in local media — and tell them why you’re there.
Be a careful consumer of news. Know its source and veracity.
Don’t join the “fake news” chorus. Don’t kill the messenger.
Brenda Blagg is a freelance writer and editor based in Fayetteville. She is a founding member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition and a former state coordinator for Sunshine Week. Her column, Between the Lines, appears weekly in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and elsewhere.
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