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Five news stories that show why open government is such a big deal

Open Records RequestsSome readers — and government officials — wonder why journalists are so nosy and make such a big deal about getting access to government records. Sure, transparency matters. But why make such a big fuss if an agency wants to withhold e-mails or something. Who cares?

Here are five shining examples of why this pesky-open government thing matters.

Last week, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas held its annual conference in Austin and announced the winners of the Gavel Awards, which go to journalists who produced stories that shed light on the legal system. A common thread runs through all these stories: They relied extensively on public documents, and uncovered important, previously unknown problems and issues in the community.

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So if you think public information isn’t really that big a deal, check out the winning stories:

  • Steve Thompson and Tanya Eiserer of The Dallas Morning News discovered the Dallas Police Department was under-counting serious crimes, creating the perception that the city was safer than it actually was. The reporters uncovered the story by examining piles of police reports.
  • Jeremy Roebuck and Jared Janes of the McAllen Monitor relied on public documents to tell the tale of how Hidalgo County was struggling to pay for millions of dollars in indigent defense costs. The reporters discovered the county’s system cost more per capita than any other urban county in Texas.
  • Leslie Wilber of the Victoria Advocate revealed how an innocent man was jailed for 62 days based on a questionable “scent identification lineup” overseen by a dog handler and his bloodhounds. The obscure law-enforcement technique answers to no laws or regulations and critics call it junk science. But the lineup is still admissible as evidence in court.
  • Cindy V. Culp of the Waco Tribune-Herald used court data to analyze the track record of a district attorney running for office. The news stories gave voters a clearer picture of a controversy surrounding how many criminal cases were dismissed.
  • David Schechter and Mark Smith of WFAA-TV uncovered how illegal immigrants who are accused of felonies in the United States — including murder — are routinely deported back to Mexico and set free.
  • Somebody explain to me again why public information doesn’t matter.