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Burriss on Media: FOI

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (BURRISS)  --  Last week a Davidson County Chancery Court Judge ruled that the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has to open its records for public inspection. The particular records in question have to do with the files of children who have died either while in the care of DCS, or after having contact with the agency.

As is usual in these kinds of cases, we have to ask why it took a lawsuit to obtain access to records that are of critical interest to the public? After all, the safety and health of children are of compelling interest to the community, and the public needs to know if agencies that deal with children are doing so effectively.

An important consideration here is that the court’s ruling is not just a victory for the press, but for any citizen. The state’s Freedom of Information Act applies to everyone, which means anyone who wants to can obtain records and see how public officials are doing. So if you think the media are being unfair or inaccurate, you can do your own comparison of what the agency says they are doing, and what the media say the agencies are doing.

There are, of course, privacy concerns when it comes to these kinds of documents. That’s why the judge exempted from disclosure the name of the victim, the name of the victim’s school and the name of the treating hospital. And, in fact, these details are generally not relevant to the public’s understanding how a state agency is functioning.

There has also been concern that the media would publish gruesome details found in the death reports, such a descriptions of victim’s bodies and autopsy findings. But ask yourself this: in all of the news reports you have read about terrorist attacks and torture, how many contained explicit details? Not many. And the reports that did contain descriptions some people might find offensive carried numerous disclaimers and warnings.

Public agencies work for the public and are accountable to all of us. The state Freedom of Information Act can tell us if public officials are, or are not, doing their jobs. And that’s information all of us should want to know.

I’m Larry Burriss.