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U.S. struggles with government transparency

Published: Sunday, March 16, 2014 9:57 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:27 a.m. CDT

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Holly Baldacci is the editor-in-chief of Huntley High School’s student newspaper, and that just may be where she decides to end her journalism career.

While she has some interest in the field, she has seen the increasing difficulty of tracking down information at the next level as more “fluff” pieces replace investigative pieces in the national media.

“I don’t know that important news has decreased, but it is harder to find because there is more fluff out there,” the senior said. “In general, more information is out there but not the important information. I feel it would be really hard to be successful in the field. I’m worried about it.”

As Monday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week – a national initiative to push for open government and educate citizens about the dangers of withheld information and excessive closed-door dealings – the United States finds itself ranked 46 in press freedoms compared to the rest of the world.

The ranking, given by Reporters Without Borders, is a 13-position drop from 2012 and was triggered by a secret seizure of Associated Press phone records, the potential jail time facing a New York Times national security reporter for refusing to disclose a source and the multiple journalists facing prison for reporting about leaked documents from Edward Snowden.

It’s not the first year the ranking dropped in the U.S., also falling in 2012 after journalists were arrested during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Dennis Brown, who serves as an adviser for Baldacci and the whole Huntley Voice student paper, said he is thankful students are able to get information they seek within the high school walls but teaching skills to dig is as important as ever for young journalists.

He said as more journalism programs and clubs are cut, it is harder to get students interested in the field.

“When I started advising and exposing myself to what a high school paper could be, I began to see this isn’t just about homecoming dances,” Brown said. “Teaching them to engage was pretty exciting.”

While transparency has decreased in some areas, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan lauded the progress in Illinois under tougher sunshine laws.

In 2013, the Public Access Bureau received 3,426 formal requests for assistance with the Freedom Of Information Act and Open Meetings Act. The majority of requests came from members of the public.

The Public Access Bureau also fielded up to 50 questions every day through the FOIA hotline and received more than 300 emails. Training sessions for members of the public, government officials, members of the media and students took place statewide.

“We continue to expand our enforcement work and educate the public about the rights and responsibilities of public agencies in an effort to create a new standard for transparency in Illinois government,” Madigan said in a release.

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