Editor column: Journalists stick together to ensure freedom of information
Most of the time, Utah journalists representing the state's various news organizations are spirited competitors. Each of us strives to be first with the news while also being accurate and fair.
Occasionally, though, we band together to support a peer whose thwarted pursuit of a story threatens to limit the ability of all Utah journalists to do their jobs.
Such was the case earlier this month when the Sanpete Messenger's Christian Probasco successfully argued before the State Records Committee that the Utah Highway Patrol should be required to release the name of a teenage boy injured when a car hit him June 5 near Mountain Green.
Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act defines such information as public, and the committee ruled UHP offered no valid reason for deviating from the law in Probasco's case. Sanpete Messenger Publisher Suzanne Dean made her case at the committee hearing, but so, too, did representatives of the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The group represents every Utah news organization and advocates for ethical and responsible journalistic practices as well as access for journalists and all Utah citizens to government records.
Chapter president Sheryl Worsley, news director at KSL Newsradio, spoke on Probasco's behalf, as did Valley Journals managing editor Linda Petersen, national Freedom of Information chairwoman for SPJ. The effort is one of many SPJ makes to ensure open government. In her national role with SPJ, Petersen has taken the lead in a campaign to stop federal agencies' public information officers from controlling who reporters may interview when matters of significant public interest arise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, prohibited the Palm Beach Post from talking to CDC staff members who had worked on one of the worst tuberculosis outbreaks in 20 years. The Department of Health and Human Services prevented a New York Times reporter from interviewing a federal health services psychologist who alleged child abuse was ignored on a North Dakota reservation.
Such prohibitions are a form of censorship that prevents reporters from getting the most accurate, truthful and complete information. Citizens, in turn, are denied critical information they need to make informed decisions about their government. "It's outrageous," David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona's journalism school and SPJ's president-elect, said Thursday at SPJ's annual convention in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "The public has a right to get information."
With any right, though, comes responsibility, and the practice of ethical journalism remains SPJ's other primary goal. The organization's code of ethics is the standard bearer for journalists, calling on all of us to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. In today's expansive media landscape, playing by these rules is more important than ever. Journalists, on the public's behalf, ask a lot of our government, and government leaders have the right to expect ethical, responsible behavior from us.
The Tribune is well-represented in SPJ. Don Meyers, reporter and utahsright.com site manager, is the organization's director for the region, which includes Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. Several other Tribune staffers and I are members of the Utah chapter's board of directors.
Most days, we'll continue to compete rigorously with our Utah media colleagues, but we'll also continue to join forces to guarantee access to public records for all journalists and all citizens.
Lisa Carricaburu is a managing editor. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @lcarricaburu.