WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a media landscape dominated of hundreds of television channels and thousands of web pages and computer apps, we are drowning in a sea of information and misinformation.
Getting to the truth can feel impossible, and some are dismissing what they read or see with a now common two-word phrase -- "fake news."
Florida's Sunshine Law can help us get to the truth.
It calls for most state and local government records to open so any of us can look at it, and it has brought some important stories we've covered recently out of the shadows and into the sunlight, including:
- A Riviera Beach police supervisor telling officers to "go dead" before they shut off body cameras as they approached a criminal suspect, one cop admitted hitting.
- People living in northern Palm Beach County waiting for up to 17 minutes for an ambulance in an emergency.
- The Treasure Coast had 21 times as many COVID-19 cases in December than November.
You heard this information because reporters filed public records requests.
"I think public records are the cornerstone of our democracy," Nellie King, a West Palm Beach attorney and expert on public records requests, told WPTV. "It ensures transparency and accountability of all government officials, whether it's the dog catcher or the governor."
But advocates of public records requests fear transparency is under fire.
"There's over 1,000 exemptions to the public records law and public meetings law, and we see more and more each session," Virginia Hamrick, the attorney for Florida's First Amendment Foundation, said.
King said people need to be forceful in getting and using public records.
"If we don't use them or if the records continue to be shielded because people don't attempt to access them, it doesn't do the public any good," she said.
You don't have to be a journalist or a lawyer to get public records.
Everyone can. King and Hamrick said interested people should.
"Whose influencing your public officials?" Hamrick asked. "That's what you can see with the public records law, and that's important."
"It allows the ordinary citizen to learn what their government officials are doing," King added. "You can expose environmental hazards, for example, corruption, fraud, or just learn what your local officials are doing."