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Tensions rise over access to local government

By Adam Geller

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 15 2014 6:49 p.m. MDT

Cliff Schechtman, Portland Press Herald executive editor, left, and Steve Greenlee, managing editor, right, talk with Brian Robitaille, seated, on the copy desk/slot to discuss the next day's front page in Portland, Maine on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

Portland Press Herald, John Patriquin, Associated Press

It was a chilling crime and, even with a quick arrest, disturbing questions lingered.

Derrick Thompson called 911 in the coastal Maine city of Biddeford to report that he was being threatened. Police checked out the complaint, decided it was a civil matter and left the scene. Three minutes later, the teenager and his girlfriend were shot dead.

In a state averaging 25 murders a year, the case was clearly of public interest and the police officers were doing the public's business. But answering questions about their handling of the call took a lawsuit, an appeal and 11 months after state prosecutors turned down the Portland Press Herald's request for 911 transcripts.

The faceoff was eventually settled in the newspaper's favor by Maine's top court. But editors, advocates and academics say such situations reflect increasing difficulty getting access to information from statehouses and city halls across the country, as officials broadly interpret exemptions in laws requiring openness.

Tensions between government officials, journalists and watchdog groups are a constant in American life. But while it can be difficult to measure change, observers are troubled by what they see as declining transparency that some say may be abetted by public apathy. Government's swing away from openness began with post-Sept. 11 security worries, they say, and has been fueled more recently by officials' concerns about individual privacy, changes in technology and opaque laws on campaign finance.

"There's a clear trend toward increased secrecy in this country. I see it in my survey research of journalists and I also see it just on the ground, in what's happening at state capitals and the federal government," said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, who studies citizen and press access to public information.

While the federal government's resistance to openness draws regular attention, state and local officials have also moved to limit access to information and proceedings, he and others say.

That is reflected in a 2012 report by the Center for Public Integrity and partner organizations that gave more than half of state governments grades of D or F for transparency and accountability. Investigators' findings included states whose open records laws included hundreds of exemptions and others that make critical budget decisions out of view of the public.

At the same time, researchers say journalists are finding it more difficult to obtain information from government through Freedom of Information requests. And, in a survey of more than 450 state and local reporters to be released this week, an overwhelming majority said that public information officers for agencies they cover are increasingly restricting access to officials and imposing other controls limiting their ability to report on government.

"The problem is pervasive," said Carolyn Carlson, a professor of communication at Kennesaw State University, outside Atlanta, who conducted the survey. "I think it's a problem for reporters as well as for the public. It means that reporters can't tell the story that they want to be able to tell them about their government."

Those findings are echoed in the anecdotal experience of newsroom leaders surveyed recently by the Associated Press Media Editors. Of the 37 who responded, two-thirds said that over the last five years the governments they cover had become less cooperative in providing access to records, meetings and officials.

"I think after 9/11 and the constant concerns about identity theft and that sort of thing, that there's been more reluctance on the part of public officials to give access to information that's clearly public," said Alan Miller, managing editor/news at The Columbus Dispatch, the daily newspaper in Ohio's capital.

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