EDITORIAL: Serious changes to FOIA laws must be made to help keep state, local institutions accountable
Larry Nassar would still be in his position of authority if not for the work of investigative journalists.
Don't just take our word for it. Consider what prosecutor Angela Povilaitis said in Ingham County court Jan. 24: “Reporters began this story and excellent victim-centered offender-focused police and prosecutors grabbed the baton and brought us here today. What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting.
“We, as a society, need investigative journalists more than ever."
The now infamous ex-Michigan State University and Team USA Gymnastics physician was sentenced in January to a maximum 175 years in prison. After he pleaded guilty to several counts of criminal sexual conduct, more than 150 women offered victim impact statements about how he sexually assaulted them during his tenure as a lower back injury specialist. He faces a third sentencing where more than 57 women will speak, sharing their stories of the horrors he put them through.
In a time when decrying media as partisan, biased or purveyors of fake news is commonplace, it’s important to understand and appreciate the public good that can be accomplished through the work of journalists.
Without the Indianapolis Star believing, and publishing, the story of Rachael Denhollander in 2016, the women Nassar assaulted would still be seeking justice. Movies like "The Post" remind us of the important role journalists play in our society – truth-seekers, watchdogs and investigators.
No other tool in the journalist’s arsenal is more effective than the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It's a complement to the Open Meetings Act, which allows citizens access to public meetings. FOIA allows citizens to request and review state and local government documents. It's a way we all can view what our government is doing behind the scenes. The effectiveness, and application, of these state laws greatly affects a reporter's ability to produce investigative journalism.
These aren't laws designed for journalists. These "Sunshine Laws" apply to all citizens equally. When state legislators like House Speaker Tom Leonard and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof act to undermine these laws they aren't just attacking journalists – they are hurting all of Michigan's citizens.
In fact, Michigan's public integrity laws are some of the weakest in the nation, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization. If you can afford the often exorbitant fees for a FOIA request – measured in hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars – these documents are likely going to be delivered so heavily redacted, they are useless. As the Center reported, "dead-last Michigan, (has) not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states."
From Watergate to the coverage of the Nassar investigation, history has proven that "sunshine is the best disinfectant."
Any person should have the same access to public documents as the press and these documents should be free and available to every citizen who seeks them. The people we elect to public office, the people who are appointed to run our public universities and the police officers who patrol our streets seem to be on their best behavior when facing the scrutiny of a free press that is supported by the public they serve.
Without the power of accountability journalism, we live in a world where injustice is easy and reporting is easily dismissed as "fake news." We, the press, are not perfect. We need to admit our mistakes and correct information. We must be accountable for our mistakes and strive to improve our accuracy. We owe it to our readers to listen to their concerns and get answers to the questions that matter to you most. It's our job to make sure you, the members of our community, are able to see the full picture of an important issue.
Expanding FOIA laws while reducing the cost to fulfill these requests allows for more transparency and open communication between a governing body and its citizens. There’s nothing to gain by keeping these laws among the most ineffective in the country, save secrecy.
What should Michigan want to be known for?
A state that isn't afraid to reveal the truth to its citizens.
A state whose citizens work with the press to demand the truth.