International Right to Know Day, September 28, is globally observed as a day to recognize the ways in which nations are addressing the challenge of transparent government in an age when technology is revolutionizing the tools and politics are transforming political institutions. In truth, new nations and emerging governments are talking the talk of openness – time will tell the tale of how they walk the walk.
As Americans whose democracy rests on the premise of the people’s right to know, we are both leaders and learners
The right to know rests on an understanding of – and attention to – the information chain – everything from what questions are raised to what and how information is gathered to how that information is packaged, distributed and turned know knowledge. It is time to re-think the chain.
One challenge is to think about who sets, pays for and promotes the information agenda. Do we as information consumers make the effort to question the financial underpinnings of studies, including studies that are theoretically government-sponsored? We need to realize the implications when interest groups lobby for the funding that sponsors studies of the environment, of health hazards, of genetic engineering, of pharmaceuticals, of campaign finances. This involves a deep dive into the politics of K Street and the Capitol
As information consumers we need to “put a face” on our collective and individual right to know. This is the only way that the information needs of real people will get on the political agendas of the agencies and organizations that represent us in the halls of Congress and the investigative journalists and editorialists who shape the message. We need information that we trust and that pertains to the questions that real life present; just as important, we need to make that message clear, focused and woven into the fabric of public understanding and discourse (preferably in that order.)
We must also be deeply concerned about the ways in which the information gets to us. It’s not limited to understanding who owns and thus controls the media in a general sense. We have long appreciated that ownership of the media is a good investment for those who have an agenda to promote on the editorial page. The very issue of a free press is threatened now by dwindling investment in investigative journalism and fact-checking and by the growing influence if corporate interests. What’s more reliable investigative reporting has been largely replaced by social media and other ubiquitous sources of information and interpretation.
The gathering of world leaders at the UN (is RTK on the agenda?) and the visit of Pope Francis should move global information sources and coverage to the front burner. As Americans we have a right and a need to know and understand from a global perspective the history, the stories, the politics, the people, the reality of the world around us.
Finally, Right to Know Day reminds us to think of our legacy. How are young learners today instilled with the spirit of inquiry, the passion to dig into the sources, the facts, the complexities of what is presented as “fact”. This is perhaps the greatest challenge. Though exploration and interpretation of the facts may reveal unpleasant truths that we are disinclined to acknowledge, awareness of the facts of history, of political processes, or the media gives us an opportunity – and challenge – to remedy, put in context, and learn from bad decisions and misdeeds, even as we celebrate the contributions of our forbearers.
Right to Know Day could be subtitled Responsibility to Know Day.