Documents important, but people are key

As much as reporters think they have the answer to all of the world’s problems and are experts on most matters, that is far from the truth.

We depend on the knowledge from our professional sources and data from vital documents to verify what we may suspect or are being told.

Fortunately, in Northeast Michigan, the press is blessed to have people in places of power who are cooperative, for the most part, and honest when sharing information. That allows the public to remain current and informed, no matter what their position on matters are.

I have been a full-time reporter for The News for 11 years. During that time, I have learned that a pile of carefully gathered and filed data is critical to conveying factual information in our reporting to the paper’s readers. Just as important is the willingness of our elected officials to provide public documents without us having to use our Michigan Freedom of Information Act rights.

Over the years, I have used FOIA little, which is both good and bad.

It is good because the municipalities I cover have granted my requests for information without the need for a formal FOIA request.

But it is also bad because I’m sure there are instances where I should have dug deeper into an issue and may have missed a few tidbits of information that could have made for better reporting and more information for readers. It only takes one of those tidbits of information to turn a simple, non-problematic story into something larger and more important.

My new editor, Justin Hinkley, has preached the importance of FOIA and the proper way to submit requests since he took the editorial reins in July. He’s talked about how to appeal a FOIA denial. My gut tells me I will be filing more FIOA requests in the coming years, but I still suspect the sources I have worked so hard to build relationships and trust with will still be my primary resources.

People are our primary resources for information, and it is critical for them to have enough faith and trust in our reporting staff to talk openly and honestly. Although it is not preferred, we also appreciate when they are willing to talk off the record on subjects that aren’t quite ready to be shared with the public. If these private conversations happen too often, however, then it is time to push harder to get information and the use of FOIA is called for.

Next week, the paper will unveil a series of stories in honor of Sunshine Week, a national initiative from the American Society of News Editors and other First Amendment advocates to educate readers about the importance of government transparency and the dangers of government not being open and inclusive. Sunshine Week 2019 runs from March 10 to 16.

Next week, The News will feature stories on local governments and how each stacks up, transparency-wise. We will review FOIA requests submitted to local governments and elected officials’ wages and other topics from communities in our four-county coverage area, which is Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency and Presque Isle counties.

Hopefully, we will enlighten readers with some of the information that is likely requested often via FOIA.

Being armed with this information is important because it allows a citizen to judge a local leaders’ value for what he or she accomplishes while in office, compared to what he or she is paid. It will also show which municipalities tend to comply with FOIA and how much they charge for information requests.

We hope you enjoy our stories and learn from our research, and, as always, thanks for reading. Happy Sunshine Week.

Steve Schulwitz is senior writer for The News. He covers Alpena County governments and state and federal lawmakers who represent Northeast Michigan.