With March 10-16 being Sunshine Week, Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment and director of the Free Speech Center at MTSU, stresses the importance of access to public information.
The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launched Sunshine Week in 2005 to celebrate free press.
Critical for democracy
The Tennessee Open Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law, is essential for democracy, said Paulson.
“It gives members of the public insight into how good a job the government is doing,” Paulson said.
Just as businesses want to ensure their employees fulfill their duties and deserve their paychecks, taxpayers should have a way to know their tax dollars are spent for worthy causes. And the Sunshine Law provides an avenue for the community to do just that.
“You would never dream of hiring an employee in your business and then never check on the quality of their work,” Paulson said. “Open public meetings, public records and a free press are three elements that allow us to scrutinize how our tax dollars are being spent and whether the people that we have hired or elected on those positions are delivering on their promises.”
Reporters keep a check on city and county projects.
“In terms of local journalism, it’s not a coincidence that the very first generation of Americans would not agree to ratify the U.S. Constitution until they had the promise of a free press and the other guarantees contained in the Bill of Rights.”
The First Amendment prohibits infringing on the freedom of the press.
“When we adopted the new constitution it gave our central government much more power, and the founders recognized the need to keep this power in check,” Paulson said. “They saw free press as the very best way to do that.”
Today’s media are much fairer compared to the media of the 18th century.
“I should point out that this occurred when the press was incredibly biased and unfair to people in public office,” Paulson said. “For all the talk about the media bias today, the ethics of the industry are so much higher than they were in the first century and a half of this country.
“Even with the flawed press, for the earliest American society, it was critical to keep democracy alive and vibrant.”
That remains the case today, added Paulson.
Supporting local journalism
Though the significance of free press for democracy has been recognized, local newspapers have struggled in recent years.
More than 1,400 cities and towns across the U.S. have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to keeping check on the government, local media also informs readers about schools and sports events, and highlights the efforts of volunteers and nonprofits that directly impact the community.
News coverage takes effort and time.
“The best way to support a local news organization is to subscribe,” Paulson said. “We live in a society, in which everyone wants everything free and downloadable from the internet, but that’s not the path to good coverage.”
While anyone can post something on social media for free, producing news stories comes with an expense.
“News organizations need to hire reporters to cover the community thoroughly, and you can’t do that on the cheap,” Paulson said.
However, there is a return on that investment.
“For every dollar invested in local journalism, there is a corresponding investment in keeping our democracy vibrant and our government accountable,” Paulson said.
At MTSU, Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center and dean of the College of Media and Entertainment.
A journalist and lawyer, Paulson has served as the editor or managing editor of newspapers in five different states.
Former editor-in-chief of USA Today, Paulson continues to write columns about First Amendment issues. He was on the team of journalists who founded USA Today in 1982 before moving on to manage newsrooms in Westchester County, New York; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Bridgewater, New Jersey and at Florida Today in Brevard County, Florida.
Paulson is a former president of the American Society of News Editors, the nation’s largest organization of media leaders and he has served as president of the Newseum –an interactive news museum that promotes free expression and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in Washington, D.C.
For 12 years, Paulson was a regular guest lecturer at the American Press Institute, speaking to more than 5,000 journalists about First Amendment issues.
In 2011, he served as chair of the PBS Editorial Standards Review Committee.
Additionally, Paulson is the host of “The Songwriters,” a television show featuring interviews with inductees into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame that airs on PBS affiliate stations in 55 markets nationwide. According to www.mtsu.edu, Paulson is a member of the Hall of Fame board.
Elena Cawley can be reached at email@example.com.