Plan ahead: Use Sunshine Week to champion fact-based journalism

By Pam Fine
White noise: (noun) meaningless or distracting commotion, hubbub, or chatter
— Miriam-Webster Dictionary

In case you missed it, the rich businessman who helped bankroll the campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union was quoted Saturday in The New York Times saying he advised Donald Trump during the presidential campaign that Facts are white noise 
and “emotions rule.”

Now that Trump has been sworn in as president, the idea that he might view facts as no more than “white noise” obligates news leaders to use their bully pulpits to argue that facts do matter. It's not enough to let good journalism speak for itself.

Even during what was supposed to be a celebration Friday night, Trump went out of his way to denigrate journalists. “Let me ask you, should I keep my Twitter account going?,” he asked attendees at one of his inaugural balls. “You know, the enemies keep saying, ‘Oh that's terrible,' but it's a way of bypassing dishonest media.”

Starting today, take a page from Trump. Create and use every opportunity you have to engage and inform the public about the value of journalism. Tout the important work your newsroom is doing for your communities and the country. It's not the time to be humble.

One opportunity to capitalize on is Sunshine Week, March 12-18. Hundreds of news organizations, civic groups, universities and government officials already use this national initiative each year to draw attention from citizens to the importance of government openness and accountability.

The week is timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and a major architect of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison and others championed the First Amendment to prevent the kind of tyranny colonists faced from King George III who prevented newspapers critical of him from publishing during the American Revolution. Madison said:

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sunshine Week is a great time to talk with the public about the knowledge your news organization provides. You could hold a live or virtual event, write a column, speak to a community group or develop a how-to guide for citizens who want to know how to access government information. As we announced in this newsletter last week, ASNE and its partners will make available a special reporting project and other content for use that week. Consider developing a project of your own.

Now is the time for news leaders to counter the idea that fact-based journalism is no better than the kind of white noise machine people use to help them sleep. Let them know that fact-based journalism is better viewed as an alarm that awakens them to the truth of what's happening so they can protect their rights and improve the conditions under which they live.

Pam Fine is the Knight Chair for News, Leadership and Community at The University of Kansas and immediate past president of ASNE.