The struggles of the local news industry affect not just the ability to cover the news, but also the traditional watchdog roles that newspapers and other local media outlets have traditionally filled.
Those include the ability to fact-check misleading claims by candidates and political groups during election season, filing legal challenges to gain access to government records or meetings of public bodies, and to monitor state legislatures for bills seeking to roll back the public’s right to know.
To help existing news organizations and others, a number of groups are emerging to fill those gaps.
This year’s Sunshine Week — March 15 to 21 — highlights those traditional watchdog roles while providing news organizations guidance on how they can get the legal, legislative and fact-checking help they need in an era of shrunken budgets. At stake is ensuring that the fight for government transparency will continue well into the future.
The American Society of News Editors launched the first national Sunshine Week in 2005 to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.
ASNE has since merged with the Associated Press Media Editors to form the News Leaders Association, representing news organizations across the U.S. The new group, along with The Associated Press, is sponsoring this year’s Sunshine Week, which begins on March 15.
The following stories will move on Tuesday, March 10, in advance for use on Sunday, March 15, and thereafter.
All published content also will be available on the Sunshine Week website, http://sunshineweek.org.
For information about the story package, contact AP State Government Team Editor Tom Verdin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about the News Leaders Association, contact AP News Editor Paula Froke at email@example.com
The story package includes:
• SUNSHINE WEEK-MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS
Political misinformation is often considered a national and international challenge, in part because of the Russian-based trolls and bots who spread false claims and sow division in a bid to influence elections in the U.S. and abroad.
It's increasingly a problem on Main Street, too, as local candidates and politicians adopt misinformation tactics and local news organizations shrink or shut down, leaving residents with fewer credible sources of information. With local news outlets struggling like never before, their ability to identify and call out misinformation will be put to the test in this year's elections, from local congressional races to campaigns for city hall.
The good news is that a constellation of groups has emerged to help them counter these nefarious campaigns. They're helping local outlets re-purpose traditional reporting techniques to fit an era of doctored videos, online impersonators and partisan sites masquerading as news. By David Klepper. 1,200 words. Photos.
With: Sunshine Week-Misinformation Campaigns-Getting Help, a rundown of resources to help local news organizations and citizens navigate the slippery world of political misinformation. 400 words.
• SUNSHINE WEEK-FIGHTING FOR ACCESS
Editor Shane Fitzgerald has pushed for public records in court to help his reporters uncover details of a destructive school fire, the police shooting of an inmate and a public defender who wasn't doing much work.
But there are many instances where his newspaper group in suburban Philadelphia has decided against taking action, especially since the declines in the news industry walloped the budgets for local news coverage and left little to cover the costs of court fights for public access: “You really have to assess your risk there and, do you really have a shot at getting it?” said Fitzgerald, executive editor for the Bucks County Courier Times, The Intelligencer and the Burlington County Times. Newspaper industry declines have led to widespread mergers, closures and mass layoffs.
The consequences go beyond the shrinking local coverage. Industry experts said they fear the demise also has taken a toll on public access to records and government transparency, as beleaguered news organizations are pursuing fewer challenges in court. Often, government agencies are treating public records as private property and disclosure as optional rather than a requirement, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in California. By Amy Taxin. 900 words. Photos.
With: Sunshine Week-Fighting for Access-Getting Help, a rundown of legal resources to help local newsrooms and others file lawsuits or challenge government agencies over access to documents and meetings.
• SUNSHINE WEEK-LEGISLATIVE TRANSPARENCY
Amid growing concern about the incentives that cities promised Amazon to land its new headquarters, Kentucky lawmakers considered a bill last year to keep the details of Louisville’s failed pitch to the retailer forever secret. To open-government advocates, the bill was an outrage that soon got worse: A committee approved it with an amendment that would prohibit residents from outside Kentucky from obtaining public records on any subject.
The bill eventually stalled amid opposition, but opponents are anxiously waiting to learn whether a similar measure will be introduced again. Identifying bills like the one in Kentucky that seek to roll back public access can be difficult, and it’s even harder to know whether similar bills are popping up in other states. A new tool from an open government organization, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, intends to do make that a lot easier.
Its ability to track all pieces of legislation that affect government transparency in state legislatures could be a boost for struggling local news organizations that are trying to fulfill their traditional watchdog roles amid deep staffing cuts. By Ryan J. Foley. 900 words. Photos.
With: Sunshine Week-Legislative Transparency-Getting Help, a description of the new legislative tracking tool, what it offers and how local organizations can access it.