Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
Editor column: Utah Media Coalition is watching out for government transparency

By Terry Orme

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Feb 07 2014 01:27 pm • Last Updated Feb 18 2014 08:35 am

Journalists have the memories of elephants. Our cerebral hard drives are stuffed with details of stories we covered, of images from big moments in our careers when we witnessed tragedy and triumph, of the minutiae of issues we labored to understand.

Some moments stick in the collective memory banks of Utah newsrooms. One sure to be there for a long, long time is from March 2011, the end of the legislative session, and HB477. Mention it to most any journalist in the state, and you likely will get a visceral, immediate reaction. That’s the bill legislators passed, and the governor immediately signed, that would have placed severe restrictions on public access to government records.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

Two weeks later, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to repeal the law after getting shelled by angry constituents. Legislators had deliberately moved to keep debate about the proposed law to a minimum. They paid the price for their attempt at secrecy in a special session called to undo it all.

The lesson learned by Utah’s news media is that vigilance is key when it comes to our lawmakers and access to government information, and to protect the integrity of the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA as the law is referred to in newsrooms around the state.

Once again, the Utah Media Coalition, a group of news organizations, has joined together to be the collective watchdog of our lawmakers when it comes to proposed legislation that could threaten public access to government information.

The coalition was founded in 2006 by former editors Nancy Conway of The Salt Lake Tribune and John Hughes of the Deseret News. The GRAMA Watch team, first mobilized three years ago, includes newsroom editors, media attorneys and Capitol Hill lobbyists who scrutinize the potential effects of proposed legislation on transparency and access.

GRAMA Watch regularly issues ratings on proposed changes to Utah law. With feedback from the other members of the team, Salt Lake Tribune Deputy Editor and Editorial Page Editor Tim Fitzpatrick writes those reports, sending them to Utah’s other news media outlets to use as they see fit. The Tribune summarizes them in columns that appear on our op-ed page and in the Opinion section of sltrib.com.

We are careful to keep this process separate from coverage of the session. Our reporters at the Legislature, and their editors, don’t participate in GRAMA Watch or the Utah Media Coalition.

So far GRAMA Watch has weighed in on five bills in the 2014 session. We gave favorable ratings — or "bright lights," for their potential benefits to open government — to three bills: HR1, which would require that legislation be heard by a standing committee at the Legislature; HB227, which would make public the forms lawmakers file to direct legislative staff to prepare bills; and HB242, which would require government entities to provide free access to information that benefits the public.

Two bills received "lights out" ratings for their potential harm to openness: SB36, which would limit disclosure of voter information, and SB114, which would require canal companies to regularly assess the safety of their canals, but would keep some of that information protected.

story continues below
story continues below

Most, if not all, these bills will change throughout the session. Other bills affecting openness are certain to surface. The coalition will follow the action. Besides issuing report cards, group members meet personally with bill sponsors and testify at committee hearings for or against individual measures.

We at The Tribune, of course, have a dog in this fight. So does every other newsroom in Utah. GRAMA and open-meetings laws are powerful tools that our reporters use virtually every day.

But these laws don’t just benefit the news media. That fact was made loud and clear in 2011 with HB477. GRAMA belongs to the public, and many people use it in lots of ways, sometimes simply to find out what’s happening in their own neighborhoods. All residents of Utah benefit from it.

The Utah Media Coalition, through GRAMA Watch, continues to be dedicated to protecting and preserving that important principle — a government that answers to the people it serves.

Terry Orme is editor and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment

About Reader Comments

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.