The importance of being informed

The importance of being informed

National Sunshine Week is a time to remind ourselves that a free society relies on truthful information.

The news media, for a variety of reasons, has been in the news almost as much as the real news lately.

Such is the nature of an enterprise — whether print, broadcast or on the internet — that includes inevitable tensions between those who report and some of those who are reported upon.

President Donald Trump is hardly the first chief executive to make known his unhappiness about how he and his policies are presented to the public. Every president, at one time or anther, has complained bitterly about media coverage while, at the same time, making great efforts to shape its content to reflect favorably on the administration.

It's a fair guess that the public sometimes doesn't quite know what to make of these occasional flare-ups, perhaps misunderstanding the news media's role in a democratic society.

That's one of the reasons why the American Society of Newspaper Editors came up with the idea of National Sunshine Week in 2005.

The goal of National Sunshine Week is to enlighten the public about its right to know more about what their government is up to. It's about a better-informed public being able to hold public officials more accountable. Obviously, the news media — the public's eyes and ears — plays a key role in ferreting out important information and presenting it to the public.

This year National Sunshine Week runs from March 12-19, one theme being the importance of freedom of information laws that make public the information held in private by governmental entities.

The news media has no claim to originality with respect to emphasizing the salutary effects of letting the sun shine in to dark corners, no matter what their location.

It was former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who wrote that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." In other words, indefensible practices cannot withstand public scrutiny. The more indefensible they are, the more important it is to bring them to public attention.

That's not to suggest, of course, that all government is constantly up to no good, just that accountability is crucial to government that strives to serve the public interest.

The unavoidable self-congratulations surrounding National Sunshine Week also is not meant to suggest that the news media is beyond criticism. No American institution is entitled to a free ride. Criticism is part and parcel of the free exchange of views that is at the root of what newspapers are supposed to stand for.

When criticism is valid, news outlets should learn from its mistakes. When it's not, reporters and editors should continue to pursue their work as best they can.

That's especially important in these days of what has become known as "fake news." Many people appear to have their own definitions of the phrase, one that they apply to any statement on any medium that they do not like.

Boiled down to its essence, fake news refers to the publicizing of hoaxes, propaganda and disinformation purporting to be real news. Another form of fake news involved the misinterpretation of comedy news stories that are taken at face value instead of understood to be satire.

Given this phenomenon, it's especially important that those who wish to be informed rely on traditional news sources that have a long-standing reputation as honest brokers. Facebook may be a great way to keep up with family and friends, but it's better to go elsewhere for real news.

The better informed people are, the better their government will be. The more zealous news outlets are in the pursuit of the news of the day, the better off both government and the public will be.

That's not an original thought either.

Thomas Jefferson said it best more than 200 years ago: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed."

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Sid Saltfork wrote on March 14, 2017 at 12:03 pm

Scott Reader, the Illinois Policy Institute writers, the Chicago Civic Club, Old Jim, and the opinions and editorials of staff...... Glad "Sunshine Week" got here.  Why not Sunshine Weeks, all 52 of them?