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the editorial board

As a viral fear infects the nation, the free press is at work

Fifteen years after its founding, Sunshine Week’s message has never been more urgent. As America and the world grapple with the nearly incomprehensible challenge of stemming a lethal pandemic while preventing a global economic collapse, a professional, independent press is indispensable – disseminating essential information while watching for everything from governmental incompetence to outright manipulation.

In a way not previously considered – at least, not often – this is just the kind of moment that a free press is needed, and we’re not talking about the kind that spoon feeds its audience what it wants to hear, whether it’s true or not. And we’re not talking about social media, which is unfiltered and littered with misinformation, some of it purposefully misleading.

The reality-based press – committed to facts, ready to acknowledge mistakes – is delivering America its best opportunity to understand the realities of the novel coronavirus – what it does, whom it affects, how best to avoid it. It is also monitoring what is being done, and not done, to stem its impact. No one else can do it.

To be sure, a virus is not the usual subject of Sunshine Week observances. Established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine week is a national initiative “to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” It’s a thoroughly American concept and one whose value is evident as the country reels in the face of COVID-19.

Consider China, the place where the virus began. That nation’s own autocratic leaders first worked to conceal it, then flat-out lied about its transmission from human to human. There, no independent media was on the watch. In democracies that value a free, reality-based press, governments cannot so easily sweep dangerous truths under the rug.

In this country, we were unprepared for the virus, partly because of President Trump’s denials and inaction. With insufficient numbers of tests, it is impossible to know how many people have been infected and to use that information to limit further spread. The reality-based media questioned him about his dubious denials even as other countries began to fall to the virus’ spread.

It’s not just the federal government that needs to be monitored, of course. It’s also state legislatures and city halls and county governments and school districts and zoning boards and public authorities. All are responsible to the public and all are subject to the all-too-human instinct for self-dealing and secrecy.

In Albany, right now, elected officials are using the emergency of the coronavirus to try to jam pet issues into the state budget, which is due is just over a week. It’s a fair bet they’re counting on the emergency to distract attention from their efforts. Who will watch them but a free press?

In the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, officials are trying to keep information about jail mismanagement from the public. The Buffalo News is trying to get that information on behalf of its readers. Whether we are successful or not, reporters are making sure that residents know that the sheriff is keeping secrets.

And reporters are watching how local, state and federal governments are managing – or, in some cases, mismanaging -- the most dangerous threat to public health in decades and the biggest economic threat in at least a dozen years. The reality-based media are providing crucial information on what public officials are doing, on how people can best protect themselves and on how to limit the fallout from the crisis that has come to us.

That’s the job of journalists. But it’s also what Americans can expect from a free press. It’s what Sunshine Week, which wrapped up on Saturday, underscores every year.

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