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Inside the First Amendment: Public info needs context, interpretation

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By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center
The recently announced move by Encyclopaedia Britannica to end its print editions after 244 years of publishing came by happenstance in the middle of Sunshine Week, an annual campaign nationwide in support of freedom of information.

The great general reference work for many generations will continue in digital form, like so much of the news, information, literature and art of our age.

In that form, it will continue to provide the background and insight that, in the final 2010 edition, includes articles by experts and practitioners as diverse as golfer Arnold Palmer on the Masters tournament, Nobel laureates on art and science, and former President Bill Clinton on the 1995 peace accords in Serbia and Bosnia.

The Britannica announcement during Sunshine Week is an ironic reminder that although lists and piles of data are basic, it’s often context, interpretation and perspective that move reams of figures and findings into the realms of the informative and useful.

A day or so before Britannica said it no longer wished to rule the print waves, the Society of Professional Journalists issued a Sunshine Week report on the difficulty journalists and others have in reaching government experts who can bring a story or a meaning to information that’s “available” but requires analysis to be understood.

The surveyed journalists — about 170 working in the Washington, D.C., area — said barriers to reaching experts on the public payroll include having to get pre-approval from public affairs officers to talk to other federal staffers, having those officers decide which experts are available, and having an inhibiting or obstructive “monitor” present during an interview. Not to mention outright stonewalling on sensitive issues.

About 85 percent of the journalists who responded to the SPJ survey agreed that “The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing.”

Granted, it may well be that a process is needed both to direct inquiries to the right place and to prevent  scientists and other experts from being overwhelmed when their particular bit or byte of data draws public interest.

A simple online directory of government staffers and their areas of focus or knowledge would be a good place to start.

Of course, there’s always the possibility experts will disagree, or depart from the political line or message being crafted by an elected official.

But that’s what the marketplace of ideas — the fundamental principle on which a self-governing society depends — is all about: differing voices, some opposed on issues or facts, doing verbal battle in the public square.

Our nation’s Founders embraced that idea, believing that, in the end, truth would emerge.

Facts without accountable, identifiable expertise behind them leave us exposed to entities like Wikipedia — a noble idea of self-correcting data, but one that can degenerate into Ping-Pong matches of back-and-forth edits.

In some ways, that’s freedom of information — with a strong dose of “receivers beware.” When it comes to information collected, collated and kept by our vast state and federal government agencies, however, citizens deserve something more: information and explanation they can rely on, and help in understanding it all.

We deserve access to information rooted in a process that operates speedily and with transparency — without public relations nannies.

Facts may speak for themselves, but when it comes to public facts, so should the people who are on the public payroll to assemble, assess and explain them.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. He may be reached via email at genepress@freedomforum.org