March 9, 2010

Most of the journalists calling me Tuesday for comment on the pending release of security video documenting the deadly orca attack want to discuss options. How should they use the video? Many of them are wondering if they should use the video at all, a question my colleague Al Tompkins has answered. No one’s asked me why journalists should fight to keep such public records open. But that’s the question I want to address.

The video itself is bound to be sensational. There may not be much journalistic purpose to publishing it. But what if the video showed irresponsibility on SeaWorld’s part and a subsequent cover-up or complicity by law enforcement? Then, there would be a journalistic purpose for airing it. We won’t know until we see it.

The right to see the video is more important than the video itself. Public records are at the heart of a government ultimately accountable to its people. Open records provide citizens with the ability to scrutinize government action.

This video is a public record because the sheriff’s department took possession of it during the investigation into the trainer’s death. When the investigation is closed, the record becomes public. Sealing this video in order to uphold the family’s desire for privacy makes it more likely that future records will be sealed for reasons other than the public’s interest.

The Federal Freedom of Information Act and its companion state laws lay the groundwork for open records. But any beat reporter can tell you that open records are only really open if someone is asking for them. Many forces conspire to keep government records private. Lawyers fight to seal documents that make their clients look bad. A government agency can create policies that prevent the release of information that reveals malfeasance or abuses of power. Overworked clerks may find requests for records onerous and sometimes avoid fulfilling the request.

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In these cases, it often takes the dedication and resources of a professional newsroom to mount a legal challenge that establishes a precedent and changes the system.

I have no doubt that some, perhaps many, will be irresponsible in using the SeaWorld video if it’s released. But that doesn’t outweigh our democratic need to scrutinize public records.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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