Sound Off: Sunshine necessary to restore trust in government

March 13-19 marks “Sunshine Week,” an annual event highlighting the importance of open government — from city hall to Congress.

Launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, this week-long celebration began as a way to “shine a light” on the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts and underscore access to public information. Seventeen years and one pandemic later, its emphasis on transparency and open government remains more relevant than ever.

Regrettably, COVID-19 and the pandemic may have hastened the eroding trust of our core institutions — both government and the media. Americans’ growing distrust of government and deepening partisan divides were only made more pronounced by the virus and exacerbated by the pervasiveness of social media.

A measure of that distrust can be seen in the 2021 Edelman Trust Index, where one in two respondents said they view government (48%) and media (46%) as divisive forces in society. Even more concerning: Less than half of respondents said they trust government leaders (42%) and journalists (46%). Some 64% of Trust Index respondents said it’s now to a point where people are incapable of having constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on.

Unfortunately, it now appears distrust has become our default setting.

And so, post-pandemic, reversing these trends becomes the real work for us all. Fortunately, there are ways to restore trust in our democratic institutions, starting with the mere act of providing credible information. Trustworthy, consistent and fact- based information is critical to breaking the cycle of distrust, according to the Edelman report. And access to that information is the sunshine that engenders trust.

Here in Washington state, the best way we know how to do this is to let people observe the legislative process first-hand and decide for themselves. The vehicle is TVW, a non-partisan TV and streaming network dedicated to coverage of all three branches of government. For 27 years now, TVW has given Washingtonians a front-row view of the legislative session, state Supreme Court hearings and other agency meetings and hearings.

And since March 2020, TVW has continued to provide that same exceptional access to the public when COVID shuttered the capitol campus, state agencies and direct contact with elected officials. From the governor’s daily press conferences to health briefings from the Department of Health, and the 2021 remote legislative sessions, the public could view official proceedings even when the doors to government were closed. Today, Olympia is still off limits to but a handful of legislators and staff. As such, TVW remains the public’s front-row seat to state proceedings.

Because TVW is nonpartisan, viewers hear directly from decision makers — without filter, bias or commentary — as they work through a variety of challenging issues. That access to primary news sources allows viewers to hear the debate, ponder the issues, and make up their own minds about the efficacy of government, public schools, health care solutions, and more. By providing the public with unfiltered access to government proceedings, TVW works to ensure all Washingtonians can monitor and lay witness to state government.

Providing access to government is essential to having an informed electorate, one willing to engage in civil discussions about what divides us. TVW is a digital form of sunshine, a vital part of resolving the “infodemic” we now find ourselves in.

Renee Radcliff Sinclair, a former state representative, is the current president and CEO of TVW.