We have the plaque, but the award belongs to whole state
Saturday, March 30, 2013 8:01 PM
After a bit of celebrating a week ago in Greenville, we at the Index-Journal are back at it. We did bask a little in our pride during the South Carolina Press Association's winter meeting and awards banquet. Forgive us, please. It's just we - like anyone else in any profession - do get a feeling of satisfaction and gratification when objective peers judge our work as some of the best of the best.
We basked, we celebrated, but we remain grounded - grounded in our belief, awards or no awards, we are doing our absolute best to bring you, the readers, the news, views and features you want and need to read. Honestly, we knew weeks before the Saturday celebration most of the awards captured by the Index-Journal's staff of writers, designers and lone photographer, but were not content to simply bask in the warm light because, after all, there is a newspaper to be produced every day.
ONE AWARD WE DID NOT know about until the awards ceremony is one we are all particularly proud of, one that probably means - or should mean - more to you. All we produce is ultimately for you, but this one has far-reaching and, we trust, long-lasting implications.
The Reid Montgomery Freedom of Information award is one of the most coveted and respected awards handed out during the state press association's winter meeting.
Montgomery was a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina and was a leading advocate for freedom of information. In fact, he had a significant role in the introduction and eventual passage of freedom of information legislation in the state General Assembly, which became law in 1972.
Every daily and weekly newspaper serving the state that has waged battle with public bodies in an effort to open the public information doors it tries to nail shut hopes to receive this award given in Montgomery's name. Only one daily and one weekly can receive the first-place honor.SO YES, WE WERE PROUD when we learned we beat the big boys for the first-place plaque, such as Charleston Post & Courier, The State, Sun News. These and other newspapers also had solid entries and did great work in the name of government transparency, but at the end of the day the judges chose your newspaper's efforts, which were ultimately on your behalf, for the top prize.
The award is the culmination of the newspaper's efforts to open law enforcement reports and provide in-dash camera video following a person's arrest.
Most readers recall the case that extends back to 2010. It involved the traffic stop of a Greenwood city council member who was subsequently arrested and charged with DUI. The newspaper asked the state Highway Patrol to provide a copy of the officer's incident report and his in-dash camera footage of the stop and field sobriety test. We were denied all of the above on the premise the case was still under investigation. It took a lawsuit against the state Department of Public Safety to get what should have been released all along. Consequently, the Department of Public Safety was ordered to release the documents.
JUDGE JAMES BARBER, of the 5th Judicial Circuit, also permanently enjoined the agency from asserting there exists an ongoing investigation as reason for withholding records.
Why does this matter to you? How does the newspaper's award equate to a victory for the readers, for the state? The decision strengthens the public's right to information pertaining to arrests and, more important, helps keep law enforcement from creeping toward what could become something akin to a police state. Think about. Without this freedom of information, without this level of transparency, law enforcement could, ostensibly, make an arrest, put someone in jail and cover its tracks. The arrest could be on trumped up charges, but without access to key information, who would know? And the fact the judge's ruling was a broad-brush stroke applied statewide, the victory is one not just for the Lakelands but for all the state's residents.
THE PRESS EXISTS for the greater good of the citizenry. We take our watchdog role seriously. We do our jobs not so much for the plaques and accompanying celebrations, but rather for the reward we get in knowing we have served our readers' interests and rights well.
That Montgomery Freedom of Information award belongs as much to you and all South Carolinians as it does to this newspaper because it represents a victory for us all in chipping away at closed government.
Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal. Contact him at 943-2522; email firstname.lastname@example.org ,or follow him on Twitter at IJEDITOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper's opinion.