Thursday, June 3, 2010

Press Releases: A call to action

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In this campaign season of railing against government and the status quo, do you actually know much about all the different things your government does? I don’t mean to insult readers by suggesting you don’t know, for example, how much public toll money it will cost to repair the Maine Turnpike bridges over Gorham Road and the I-295 southbound exit ($1 million).

Certainly, some of that is the fault of media outlets, which don’t always do a great job of investigating government actions and uncovering the hidden truths about what those who serve us are really up to — whether good, bad, or (as seems to be most often the case) indifferent.

But this is not a call to action directed at media outlets — they already hear enough of that, and if they’re slacking off the digging, they know it. Quite frankly, ensuring government openness, transparency, and effectiveness is not solely up to the media: It’s up to you.

You are the most effective person for the job. Contrary to popular belief, the media have no special rights to public information — what’s available to reporters is no more or less than what’s available to everybody else. And government officials don’t exactly like media scrutiny all that much: whenever lawmakers and policymakers are considering becoming more open or (as is much more often the case) more secretive, the most persuasive arguments for transparency are not that the media will be shut out, but that the people will be.

Which is why it behooves you not just to rely on media outlets to get you the information you need, but to go out and get it yourself. Right now, all over Maine and across the country, public officials are going about their business without worrying that anyone’s watching — because often, nobody is. Whether you object to a government program or support it (or hate some and like others), go learn more about it, from the source. Keeping government honest is everyone’s business.

Go exercise your right — think about something that matters to you, contact the relevant public agency, and ask for documents on some aspect of the issue. (If you’re stuck, an agency’s annual budget is always a good place to get ideas of what else you might want to learn about.)

Air quality, water quality, bridge maintenance, reports of infectious diseases, pollutant and toxin releases, tractor-trailer accident data, road-building plans, building- and business-inspection records, and all kinds of other information are open to the public — that means you.

For some tips, check out the Portland Phoenix’s blog,, where you can find a link to a PDF of a handout from a Society of Professional Journalists freedom-of-information session I helped organize in Portland last week (I’m the president of the Maine SPJ chapter). If you run into problems, there are some strategies in the handout; SPJ can help, as can the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, and — especially when it comes to government spending, the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s site at

The overall point is to remember, both as you go to the polls this week and throughout the rest of the year, that people in government agencies work for you. This does not mean you get to harangue or harass them (free-speech principles apply, but so do those of adult decorum). Think about it this way: if you’re their boss, you don’t want to be the rude, mean boss everyone hates and is afraid of. You want to be the effective boss people like working hard for.

Take a few minutes — maybe on the first weekday of every month — to think about some information you’ve been meaning to ask for from your government, and make the call, or send the e-mail. It’s up to you — and not just the media — to keep your government working hard, honestly, and openly.