Last week, the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program hosted a public forum at Seattle Public Library to discuss the swarm of stories surrounding Wikileaks. “Open Secrets: An Open Conversation about Wikileaks and Information Transparency in America” featured a panel of local “thought leaders”: Mike Fancher, Retired Executive Editor of The Seattle Times; Brett Horvath, Director of The Leaders Network; and Sarah van Gelder, Editor-in-Chief, Yes! Magazine, a progressive magazine.
The discussion exemplified the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of getting a handle on so many fractured and simultaneous dimensions at the moment they’re occurring, as if trying to gather one’s most precious possessions from the air in the middle of a tornado. But to the credit of the moderator, panelists, and audience, the discussion was civil and wide-ranging, creating a public forum for whatever sense-making is possible at this stage.
Even in a story that’s evolving moment by moment, with a steady din of conjecture and partial information, the troops are already lining up behind their chosen heroes and challenging designated villians. Friday’s discussion was no exception. The general consensus seemed to be that Julian Assange, a clever though flawed hero, has done democracy a service by tossing raw classified information into the winds. A few participants in the audience raised questions about how people who work in government (the government is comprised of people, after all) are to conduct themselves in earnest, without the expectation that each datum will be publicly available, suggesting that indeed there may be some role for classification under certain circumstances. Their questions found little traction or response. My own conjecture is that their comments met a general climate of suspicion, an assumption that government is insidiously secretive by default.
But there’s another reason for this quick leap to the comfortable pro-con approach to this complex story. Many discussions in the media have been strikingly deficient in providing background on government documents and what roles they fill in the work of agencies and actors. What documents does the State Department produce, and for what purpose? Why are some of them classified? What IS classification? Are there different levels of classification? Under what circumstances can documents be declassified? What is the current state of government transparency overall, and how has this changed from the last to the current administration?
That’s where you all come in, Free Government Information community. If government information stymies even librarians, then what else could WE be doing to make it accessible to the general public, beyond putting raw documents at easy reach? What else could we communicate about the information life cycle of government documents that could flesh out our analysis of the current state of government transparency and secrecy more accurately? I’m not suggesting that this would make the questions or answers any less challenging, nor do I suggest that we become apologists for government abuses of transparency. But while these stories are in heavy circulation, we have an opportunity to insert our expertise to bring grounding to many narratives that are now lacking that crucial context.
I’ve been heartened by a recent string of long-form journalism that’s been making a buzz, provoking change, and bringing attention and insight to important issues. As it happens, these pieces often draw heavily upon government information. Examples include the Washington Post’s series Top Secret America, outlining the growth of security and intelligence in a post-9/11 America; and The Runaway General, Rolling Stone’s profile of General Stanley McChrystal, which led to his firing for disparaging comments he and his aides made about the administration. In both cases, government information illuminates the exploration of current, pressing issues in the news.
I’ve often been frustrated with standard editorial practice of mentioning, but not completely citing, the particular documents referred to in newspaper articles. It masks the ubiquity of government information in our daily lives, and sets up a barrier to readers who might be interested in examining the original documents themselves (and can make it challenging for a librarian to track it down when the patron seeks assistance). For example, in The Transformer, Foreign Policy’s recent story on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which fostered speculation that he might retire before the end of Obama’s first term, author Fred Kaplan refers to a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee early in Obama’s presidency in which Gates testified. This would be findable enough, but would require more tenacity than a casual reader might muster.
The Washington Post’s recent piece, How the Minerals Management Service’s partnership with industry led to failure, is a great example of journalists harnessing the possibilities of the online environment to enhance the reading experience and access to related documents. In this long piece on the too-cozy relationship between regulators and industry, the journalists not only tell readers exactly which documents they used in their reporting, they link to highlighted, annotated full-text of primary sources used in the story, such as a memo from the Inspector General to the Secretary of the Interior on investigations of MMS employees. This supplements the story by giving the reader routes for further exploration, as well as a genealogy of the story that gives more transparency to the journalism itself.
Creating an annotated map, pointing back to the primary documents used to inform a journalist’s narrative, would be a great exercise for students studying government information, journalism, librarianship, indeed citizenship, to raise awareness of the life cycle of government information and what can happen when it is unleashed in the public square.
Mike Wash, CIO for the Government Printing Office, is Washington Post’s Federal Player of the Week.
Also interesting, this article was jointly prepared by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, which strives to improve federal government performance and recognize the good, hard work of our public servants. In an environment replete with knee-jerk anti-government sentiment, such work seems especially important for enhancing the public’s understanding of government professionals’ work and impact. Another similar organization I follow is Understanding Government, which supports excellence in reporting of the executive branch. Of course, we need our watchdogs and gadflies to push back against government secrecy, but we also need to know when people at all levels of government are doing things well.
As a reference and instruction librarian, I always have my eyes open for sources that make government information accessible and relevant for general reference questions and instruction sessions. I especially like websites that provide a wide range of information, make that information browsable by topic, and that don’t require the user to navigate the administrative or publication cycle to get to the meat of these materials. I’m also partial to sources that include media, such as podcasts and video, which helps me sell these sources to undergrads at the reference desk and through online class guides. The good news is, it’s getting tough to keep track of them all! A couple of my favorites:
U.S. Department of State
Wide topical range of publications and background information, browsable by policy issues, countries & regions, and more.
An online archive of the Supreme Court, Oyez allows users to browse for cases by issue, such as due process, federalism, civil rights, etc. Also includes some audio of oral arguments.