Editorial: Sunshine Week Important Now As Ever

I’ll never forget the Open Meeting Law conference I covered a few years ago in Northampton. Then State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg held the conference in March 2015 for local civic leaders and venting about the Open Meeting Law, which is in place for all of us to get necessary information about how our government is run, commenced immediately.

John Payne, who was then Select Board Chairman in Shelburne, said he found that the law was used by people angry with town government to “harass” officials by requesting meeting minutes.

“I’m perfectly happy to make information available to the public, but I don’t think we should have laws that make the press’s job easier, particularly since they haven’t done anything to earn that,” he said, according to an article I wrote for the Daily Hampshire Gazette at the time.

Others echoed his sentiments, which included allowing officials to privately discuss public matters before publicly debating them, and his comments received a round of applause at the conference.

I think about that scene often when Sunshine week comes around each March, a week when the American Society of Newspaper Editors provides info about things like the Open Meeting Law, which increases public information.

Payne is no longer on the Select Board in Shelburne, but there are many others like him who would seek to limit the public’s access to information.

Massachusetts public records law that year was ranked among the worst in the nation by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization. But the law did get an upgrade at the beginning of 2017, but there are still problems including long response times for information requests.

Meanwhile, there are attacks on the press constantly under the current administration, who has inspired lower level government officials to take on the phrase “fake news” when trying to counter potentially embarrassing stories the press is rightfully reporting on.

All of these attacks and the proliferation of actual fake news is having an effect, and people are finding it harder to identify actual credible news.

Former Advocate Editor Kristin Palpini had a great checklist to find out if what you’re reading is fake news:

1) It’s from a news organization or website you’ve never heard of.

2) It’s from an organization that kind of sounds familiar but not quite. For instance, politicot.com (which sounds a lot like actual legitimate news source Politico.com) features a healthy offering of completely fake news.

3) It’s written in ALL CAPS.

4) If you see a crazy-sounding news story, but the AP, New York Times, Washington Post, and other national news sources are not reporting on it, it’s probably fake news.

5) If no sources are cited.

6) The article is clearly unbalanced and biased. Often writers will do their best to spread an agenda rather than report the truth.

7) There are a bunch of pop-up and flashing banner ads on the site.

8) The story contains “I” statements by the author, which news stories rarely contain.

9) The photo on the article does not match the story’s content.

10) There is no byline or the byline is an alias.

There are lots of headlines out there just written to make your blood boil so that they will be shared without reading. This is unhealthy for the public — discrediting the field of journalism and allowing those who behave badly in government to get away with it.

Furthermore, for young people the problem is especially severe. A recent Stanford Study established that 82 percent of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. The same study concluded that more than two out of three middle-schoolers couldn’t see any reason to mistrust a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial-planning help.

Media literacy is a skill students are lacking, and at the same time, officials with power, even at the local level, fight against laws that make information available to those who request it.

That’s why Sunshine Week is important. It’s a time for all of us to reflect on the importance of strong journalism, and strong tools to help journalists practice it. The best defense against fake news is a strong core of real journalists who report on the truth.

Happy Sunshine Week to all.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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