Monday, April 12, 2010

Contrast in governments' accessibility

Working for the city section of The Daily Tar Heel, I've talked to a lot of local politicians.

In writing daily stories, I'm frequently on deadline, and only rarely do I need one specific council member as a source. So I'll place calls in the morning, and by afternoon I've usually had at least one person call me back.

I'm doing a project for my Citizens and Media class where I'm researching the Greensboro government and the local media's coverage of it. It was my job to speak to community officials and find out their opinions on the local media.

I called the only number available on the Greensboro's city council Web site, asked to be connected to the mayor, and was directed to his e-mail. Each to speak to the city council members led to the same result.

It's been several weeks since these nine attempts, and I've received two replies.

One from the mayor, William Knight, only to tell me that he would not be speaking to me, and only one reply from one council member who was willing to talk to me.

Quite frankly, I'm appalled by the inaccessibility and lack of transparency in the city's government. For seven members of their council to ignore me completely and the mayor to decline just shows a complete disconnect from listening to people.

What? Are they afraid I'm going to expose some big secret of theirs? Afraid my questions will be too probing? I explained the purposes and intentions of the project in the e-mail. I think it was pretty clear what I was looking for.

This makes me appreciate the government of Chapel Hill so much more. Members are always willing to speak with me and always call me back. I really feel like I know what's going on with local government and members usually try their best to make government accessible.

In my experience, people who are used to talking to media personnel are less afraid to talk to me and will more frequently call me back much sooner than those we are not. When I call the mayor, he'll speak with me. When I called Orange County Social Services for a story last semester repeatedly over the course of a week, no one ever called me back.

Councils should know how to talk to media. It's a necessary part of an informed citizenry. How are the media supposed to effectively report on government actions if they cannot speak to the government?

Granted, they may have given me more attention if I were calling from a more official news source rather than as a student. But the fact that they would deny me from learning more about their city and their government is enforcing the same principle.

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