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How To Make Government More Transparent

You can help us make government more transparent.  Please take a look at this editorial in the Sun Journal which lays out a challenge for Maine for keeping government as open as possible.  We would not be able to do our work as journalists without a strong Freedom of Access Act. "We’d like to see a little statutory muscle added to Maine’s Public Access Ombudsman to really strengthen the public’s right to access records and attend meetings.  

During the Baldacci administration, the Legislature — upon the recommendation of the Right to Know Advisory Committee — created the ombudsman position to review public access complaints and to attempt to mediate disputes regarding Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. Continue Reading →

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Why Democracy needs journalists, lesson #47

In between all the fancy academic language, there's a lesson in the recently released study by a Dartmouth and a University of Essex professor: Politicians don't lie as much when they know journalists are watching them. Here's the abstract of the research paper, "The Effect of Fact-checking on Elites: A field experiment on U.S. state legislators," by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler:
Does external monitoring improve democratic performance? Fact-checking has come to play an increasingly important role in political coverage in the United States, but research suggests it may be ineffective at reducing public misperceptions about controversial issues. However, fact-checking might instead help improve political discourse by increasing the reputational costs or risks of spreading misinformation for political elites. To evaluate this deterrent hypothesis, we conducted a field experiment in nine U.S. states in which a randomly assigned group of state legislators were sent a series of letters about the risks to their reputation and electoral security if they are caught making questionable statements. Continue Reading →

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Antidote to politics: Some good reading on the debt limit

Whenever there's a big news story, it can be hard to get behind the headlines and find useful, unbiased and verifiable information on that particular issue. The news often ends up being dominated by talking heads with an axe to grind. So we're always delighted when the folks at "Journalist's Resource," run by Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, offer up a collection of research to help us understand the issue. Here's an excerpt from their latest roundup of research on the debt ceiling, which is really helpful for filling in the background on this important, politically charged conflict:
What is the “debt ceiling” and why does it matter? At the most basic level, it is the limit that Congress places on the U.S. Treasury in terms of how much debt it can issue. Continue Reading →

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New study on non-profit news organizations: They’re healthy, but face big challenges

The Pew Research Center has been following the growing non-profit journalism world for several years, charting the progress of groups -- including the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting -- that were founded to fill the gap in reporting caused by staff cutbacks at traditional news outlets. The nonprofit news sector "is showing some signs of economic health, and most leaders of those outlets express optimism about the future," conclude the authors of the latest study released this month by Pew.  "But many of these organizations also face substantial challenges to their long-term financial well-being." For those readers who care about the future of the news industry -- and the vital role journalism plays in our democracy -- you can read the report here. Continue Reading →

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Great story from New York World on impending doctor shortage

Our friends at the New York World have just published a great story about how a lack of funding threatens the ability of medical students to become doctors. It's focused on New York, but there's plenty of reporting in the story to show how this is a national problem:
"Medical schools have increased enrollment in anticipation of rising demand for doctors. A shortfall of funding for residencies could strand many future doctors-to-be: they’ll earn medical degrees, but without enough residency positions to go around. And a doctor cannot obtain a license to practice without completing a residency. Funding for medical residencies, most of which comes from Congress via Medicare, remains frozen at 1990s levels, and is only getting scarcer." To read the rest of the story, go to the New York World. Continue Reading →

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Maine one of 16 states to push ethics reform, one year after getting an “F”

A lot has happened since the State Integrity Investigation, a first-ever analysis of transparency and accountability in all 50 states, was published a year ago. (The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting provided the research that went into Maine's grade.) Here's a report from the Center for Public Integrity, which spearheaded the investigation:

"The project — a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, with cooperation from the Investigative News Network — has been quoted, praised, assailed or otherwise cited by hundreds of news outlets, good-government groups and legislators. The project was also a finalist for the prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting awarded by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Clearly, the idea of measuring accountability and transparency in state government has touched a reformist nerve — and our package is continuing to resonate across the country." To read the rest of the story, 'State Integrity Investigation' has blockbuster first year," click here. Continue Reading →

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Pew on news media in America: Grim state of affairs

The good folk at the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism have issued their annual report on the state of the news media in America. Bottom line: "In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public." In other words, government and the private sector are telling you the news they want you to know, not necessarily the news you need to hear. And the U.S. news media, severely depleted after more than a decade of decline, doesn't have the resources to get the real story anymore, say the Pew researchers. "This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. Continue Reading →

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What you don’t know can hurt you

Distinguished journalist Geneva Overholser has just published a provocative and in-depth discussion of the rush to make public information about guns private in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Here's an excerpt:
Citizens who are reassured by this stampede to withhold information should consider: Secrecy is almost always the first instinct of politicians. That previous lawmakers have made a determination that the name and address of any handgun permit holder in New York State “shall be a public record” is evidence of an uncommonly enlightened understanding that certain kinds of information should be in the public domain. Why today’s readiness to deny that it is in the public interestfor such information to be available? We seem to be in one of those recurring periods in our society when concerns about privacy regularly trump an allegiance to informed self-governance. Continue Reading →

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The real harm of discrimination must be exposed

The Sun Journal editorialized about our series on state employee discrimination suits. Here's an excerpt:

"A Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting investigation, published Dec. 19, revealed the disgraceful behavior and the costly settlement agreements in state government based on its review of public records detailing the accusations and resulting compensation. For instance, taxpayers spent $20,000 to settle a claim made by a state prison worker who was subjected to regular sexual harassment, including being referred to as “Genitalia” instead of her real name, and being asked about her favorite sexual positions. No one should have to endure that degradation, never mind at work and certainly not from fellow corrections officers who most certainly know better." Continue Reading →

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Finally, a study that looks at whether campaign cash actually influences policy

Clayton Peoples, a lab fellow at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, specializes in campaign finance and corruption, a subject that most investigative reporters love. He's done important work looking at actual data linking campaign contributors'  influence over legislation -- the kind of influence that many people intuitively believe exists, but an influence that has also suffered from a lack of empirical, fact-based documentation. Take a look at Peoples' latest blog post, "What Can $6 Billion Buy?" where he concludes: "It is not especially surprising that an analysis of all the bills over an extended period reveals consistent contributor influence. As a lawmaker interviewed by Schram in his 1995 book Speaking Freely put it, “(People) will often look for...the grand-slam example of influence of these interests. Continue Reading →

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