This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In this line of work, we constantly butt heads with public officials to get information.
We want investigative documents on high-profile crimes. We are curious about taxpayer money going to salaries and benefits for high-end state employees. We ask questions about how an agency picked a contractor for a lucrative public works project. We investigate to determine if a developer got special treatment from a municipal planning department.
We want to know these things because citizens want to know, and have a right to know. It's our job to tell them. We created a website utahsright.com that contains hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of government records, all in searchable databases, to inform the public.
So, it was a most welcome surprise last December when we learned that a University of Utah honors class was studying the effects transparency has on good government, and on the public's trust in government. We were impressed that, in addition to studying the issues, they were planning ways to have an impact on openness.
For the past seven months, 10 students among the best and brightest undergraduates at the U. have read and heard from experts about the importance of transparent government. They've dissected Utah's Government Records Access and Management and Open and Public Meetings laws. They have scrutinized the effect of President Barack Obama's 2009 open-government directive.
They have considered how the information revolution and digital age have created unprecedented opportunity for government to be accessible, from the Utah Legislature live-streaming action on the floors of the House and Senate, to Sandy City posting its city council agenda online, to a court docket being a few mouse clicks away.
At the same time, the Honors Think Tank, as the class is known, explored the other side of the information revolution: the threat to personal privacy. The digital age has made it possible for the government and employers to look in on the habits, preferences and thoughts of citizens and employees. Facebook, Google+ and other social media have fostered a culture of sharing personal information that can come back to haunt you. In the past, you could be "unlisted" and anonymous. Now, Internet users leave a traceable digital history.
Interesting and relevant the sort of class that makes you wish you were back in college. But even better is the fact that these students are taking academia to a new level.
On Wednesday, the students focusing on government transparency will hold a news conference where they will unveil a list of best practices for municipal governments to adopt in order to take utmost advantage of digital tools in dispensing information and engaging citizens. They will ask city governments throughout Utah to adopt these practices.
The students focusing on privacy, meanwhile, are producing videos to be uploaded to YouTube that will offer another list of best practices: How to keep your personal information private while using the Internet.
The Tribune was asked to be a private-sector partner in the Think Tank. And we jumped right in, offering our services in editing the class final report, and in underwriting a poll to assess citizens' experience and interest in engaging with their local governments online.
In these students, I see a desire to make government better, more responsive to more fully realize the potential of democracy. Not only have they studied hard and thought deeply, they've come up with practical, difference-making ideas.
They see the benefits to society of a transparent government, and they see ways to make government more so. As a journalist, you have to love that.
Terry Orme is managing editor at The Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @terryorme.
Tribune wins prestigious First Amendment award
Investigative Reporters and Editors announced last week that The Salt Lake Tribune will receive a special recognition award, "Service to the First Amendment," at its Boston convention in June. IRE singled out The Tribune for its coverage of House Bill 477, the legislation passed, and then was recalled, that would have altered Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act.
In announcing the award, the judges wrote: "The paper waged and won a battle over the Utah legislature's attempt to eviscerate Utah's open records law and citizens' right to know. Lawmakers introduced and passed a bill late in the legislative session without much notice. But the paper fought back in two months of coverage on the content and impact of the bill. It offered its content to other newspapers around the state, and in a rare and unusual move ran strong editorials on the front page. Despite the governor's initial signing of the bill, the paper's efforts and public outcry forced him to reverse his position and call the legislature back into session. For extraordinary effort by newspaper managers and staff, IRE offers it congratulations and awards special recognition."