Community journalism essential to transparency

by Jeff Lester

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Before he became a Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis wrote those words more than a century ago in a Harper’s Weekly article on the need to uncover corruption in the nation’s financial system.
Since then, advocates for open government have invoked the metaphor of sunshine. We say “sunshine laws” as shorthand for freedom of information’s legal protections. We celebrate freedom of information efforts during Sunshine Week.

But it’s not enough that advocates fight to bring the affairs of government into the light. It’s not enough to uncover truth.

It only matters if citizens are able to recognize truth.

And that brings me to where we are as a society. We live within the most profound irony of the 21st century. We carry access to the entirety of human knowledge in our back pockets — but all too often, we use it not to open and broaden our minds but to invent, or latch onto, a distortion of reality that suits our fears, prejudices and aspirations.

I work for a group of three nondaily newspapers and a shared website in the corner of Virginia that borders northeast Tennessee and eastern Kentucky.

More than once in the last few years, we have been attacked on social media for being, in someone’s mind, a typically biased “fake news” outlet, or something like that — based, apparently, on occasional coverage of federal government and national politics. I’m not certain of the reason because, when I ask, I rarely get a response.

Never mind the fact that it’s rare for us to focus on federal government and national politics.

I ask critics if they actually have looked at our pages and our website. Mostly, they’ll see answers to questions such as, will county supervisors raise property taxes, and why? Who got indicted by the county grand jury? Who passed away? Who got married? Which roads are blocked by construction projects?

The facts of what we typically report sometimes don’t matter to people who believe there can be “alternate facts” — people who discuss “the media” as if all journalists work for one evil corporate monolith that is determined to brainwash the good people of America.

People are naturally inclined to believe what they want to believe. But when I was a kid, arguments over the news involved differing opinions about a shared set of facts.

Now, information technology lets us build fortresses within which we can ignore or deny reality. With a keystroke or a mouse click, we latch onto slick, professionally packaged lies and distortions that bring us comfort. Politicians, pundits and con artists bombard us with assertions, pronouncements and position statements while they encourage us to ignore “the media.” True believers, freed from the burden of facts, look at journalists as the enemy. Fans of Fox and CNN alike shout “fake news!” at one another as a thoughtless battle cry, not a sincerely considered allegation.

I’m reminded of an old saying that ought to chill us to the bone. It was popular among citizens repressed and starved of information within the old Soviet Union: “There is no news in the truth, and there is no truth in the news.”

The truth of what it is to be American has always been specific to individual experience. But there was a time when, even if we found our own truth within the facts, at least we agreed on what is a fact!
Good journalists and responsible citizens don’t just hurl accusations with nothing to support them. That’s why open government laws and citizens’ access to government records are vital. Public records can eliminate speculation and guesswork by confirming or refuting what government officials tell us.

Participatory democracy only works if citizens take ownership of it instead of escaping to the easy security of being brainwashed.

Legitimate, accurate, objective, ethical journalism has one mission: Find the facts that matter to the community and present them in a way that citizens can use.

But our mission only matters if citizens refuse to take the easy path of believing whatever makes us feel comfortable. Regular folks must accept responsibility for the work that comes with healthy skepticism. Ask questions. Avoid assumptions. Assess the motives of those who want to feed you a steady diet of propaganda.

Whether you love The Washington Post or despise it, there’s no denying the truth of its motto:

Democracy dies in darkness.

Jeff Lester is news editor of The Coalfield Progress in Norton and The Post in Big Stone Gap. He has worked in community journalism for 28 years. Lester is a board member of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government,

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