With Sunshine Week on the horizon, now more than ever people need honest information. Sunshine Week, March 15 to 21, is an annual call by the news industry for open government and open information. It has been developed over the past 15 years by media outlets large and small to help people understand the importance of free access to information. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Secretary of State Jim Condos are big supporters of open government and Sunshine Week.
With the very real spread of CoVid-19 across the country and more specifically here in the Deerfield Valley, it is more important than ever that people in government, health care, public safety, and elsewhere be more transparent. People need to trust that what is being said is accurate and honest.
No one wants a panic, and the best way to prevent that is with accurate information. Despite cries of “fake news” by some, most media outlets that are grounded in traditional journalism techniques, whether print, TV or digital, will work hard to ensure facts come first, especially when reporting on something as charged as the coronavirus outbreak. That means social media, while often the place where things first show up, shouldn’t be the only place people get their information. Especially about something like coronavirus. People need facts to make informed decisions, and oftentimes posts on social media are more rumor or conjecture than fact.
We’re not saying avoid social media. We ourselves use it to track down basic information and leads. But, as good journalists do, we make the phone calls and send the emails to verify what may or may not be true. That’s just plain, old gumshoe work. Tracking down details and verifying information.
We understand public officials, especially those in the medical profession, have to find a way to balance the need to know with personal privacy under the law, privacy protected by HIPPA rules and other laws.
But leaders have a responsibility to lead. We need officials to speak as honestly and openly as they can about where situations might be occurring. That doesn’t always happen. Just take this week’s news about coronavirus being confirmed in Vermont. It took state officials two days to say publicly that the “presumed positive” case was found in Readsboro. In the beginning, officials were saying it was found in Bennington County. That’s too broad a geographic area to do anyone any good. Especially when social media and the local rumor mill had already spread the word of coronavirus being in Readsboro.
We understand, no one wants the first person confirmed with the virus in Vermont to be identified directly. There is no reason to brand that person with a scarlet letter. We completely support withholding the name of the individual, and choose to do that in our own reporting.
But to offer up a wide geographic region of some 678 square miles as the generic center of the outbreak also did no one any good. It just created fear in communities that didn’t need it. We choose to identify Readsboro as the location of the outbreak so people could have better information to make informed decisions.
People need to be accepting of what officials say, which puts a lot of pressure on officials, especially those in appointed government positions or private employ. But coronavirus is an equal-opportunity infector. It will infect anyone it can, regardless of affiliation or belief. No one should be in fear of losing their job because they might give out information someone higher up doesn’t approve of, or doesn’t meet party dogma. That’s why we need openness, and a willingness to accept the science and medical facts as they are, not in how they fit some ideological or business position. The health and well-being of thousands are at stake.
Which brings us back to Sunshine Week. Its goals are simple, one of which is to give everyone access to critical information so people can make informed decisions. Now is one of those times when all should embrace that idea wholeheartedly. To do otherwise is a risk no healthy democracy should take.