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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Getting info harder than it should be

By Sara Foss
Thursday, March 20, 2014

When I first started reporting, I gathered most information through interviews. Sometimes these interviews were conducted in person, sometimes by phone. Occasionally a fax machine spit out a press release that contained useful information.
Over the past 15 years or so, the way I gather information has changed.
I rely on email a lot more and the fax machine a lot less. And by a lot less I mean almost never.
The Internet is also a wealth of information. Government reports are available online, as are meeting schedules, live video feeds of press conferences and speeches and other public documents. I once drove from Birmingham, Ala., to Atlanta to pick up a copy of an important court decision. In this day and age, it’s hard for me to believe that such a trip would be necessary.
The Internet has opened up the world in many ways — to reporters, and also to the general public. If you want to know how many people in the U.S. die each year in automobile accidents, or what the median wage in America is, or how the unemployment rate in Schenectady County compares to the unemployment rate in Saratoga County, well, all that information is just a click away.
Which is great.
But I get annoyed when I hear government officials pat themselves on the back for putting information on the Internet. They seem to think creating databases and websites represents some sort of cutting-edge breakthrough in the quest to make government more transparent and open. But there’s more to transparency and openness than making information available on a government website.
This week marks Sunshine Week, a national effort, spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors, to promote open government and educate people about the dangers of secrecy.
In honor of the event, Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a one-year report on Open NY, a state initiative aimed at “increasing citizens’ engagement with their government,” and touted the growth of Data.NY.Gov, a website that provides users with access to data, statistics and documents from local, state and federal governments. There’s a lot of information available through the site, and if you want to know how many cases of flu have been reported this year, or the best places to fish in New York, Data.NY.Gov can answer your questions.
But what does Open NY add up to, really?
Since taking office, Cuomo has become known for his secretive approach to dealing with reporters.
Under his administration, it’s become much harder to get state agencies to answer fairly basic questions and most responses are provided in the form of emails and statements that read as if they were written by semiliterate robots.
Long gone are the days when most reporters could talk to an expert who might actually be able to provide context and analysis for the stories they’re writing. Today most responses are conveyed via spokesmen who might know a lot about marketing and public relations, but little about, say, public health.
In an October editorial, the Watertown Daily Times blasted the Cuomo administration’s heavy-handed management of information, writing, “In about 90 percent of the news stories we publish, we’re giving out what should be readily available information that most agencies and departments want to make public. But we have been denied access to either the information, or the people that have the information, time after time. Previously reliable spokesmen and women have been forced to tell us that they’ll have to clear the release of that information before they can provide it.”
Sadly, there’s nothing unique about the Cuomo administration’s aggressiveness in controlling information.
It wasn’t so very long ago that Gazette reporters could contact Schenectady County commissioners and learn about county programs and initiatives. You could talk to people in, say, the Health Department and learn about the valuable work they were doing to keep people healthy. These days, obtaining that information is much harder, because all requests for information are funneled through county spokesman Joe McQueen.
Unfortunately, state and local governments are simply following the federal government’s lead.
Despite vowing to be the most transparent administration in history, a recent analysis by the Associated Press shows that the Obama administration has actually become less open over time.
“More often than ever, the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy,” the AP reported.
Of course, the Obama administration has posted more government data to the Internet than any other administration.
And I’ve appreciated having access to this data.
But we should be suspicious of government efforts to manage and tightly control information. Because that information belongs to the public, and we shouldn’t have to fight an unyielding bureaucracy to get it.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

 
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