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UConn Advance

Journalism class takes its quest for the truth on line
By Luis Mocete
May 2, 1997

Sarah Treat noticed something unusual when she sat down for a recent state Freedom of Information Commission meeting.

"There were a lot more people in attendance than there usually are," says Treat, a journalism major. "There were three or four security guards standing up against the wall. I wanted to know what was going on."

She soon found out: The commission decided not to schedule a hearing on Sydney Libby's complaint against Middletown Mayor Maria Holtzberg. Libby stood up and grew belligerent.

"He refused to leave," Treat says. "He became quite obnoxious. He said he wouldn't leave unless he was arrested."

Libby was removed, but the day's outbursts didn't end there. In the next case, Commissioner Rosalind Berman announced there would be no scheduled hearing to address David Cummings's complaint against Jeff Bragg, office manager of the state Workers' Compensation Commission. Cummings complained loudly.

"It was a little unnerving because when Cummings went up to speak he said he wanted only the commission to hear what he had to say because it was a very sensitive issue," Treat says. "He wanted everyone in the room to leave. I knew he had been watching me all the time. I was taking notes, so he knew I was some kind of reporter."

Despite his stares, "I wasn't going anywhere," she says, "because I had a job to do." And that is to report on the cases that are heard at the commission's meetings for Access Online, a news service compiled by journalism majors.

Access to decisions
"We've been covering freedom of information issues because people should have access to the decision-making that goes on in their government," says Wayne Worcester, whose advanced journalism class does the reporting. Worcester's class has been publishing the newsletter Access, winner of the Helen M. Loy Award for public service, at least once a semester since 1991. That has changed since the publication went on line this semester.

"Students are now writing with deadline pressure," he says. "Instead of having a two- or two-and-a-half month lead time for the print publication, the on-line version only gives them a few hours to get their job done."

According to Worcester, it is easier for his students to produce an on-line product than a print publication, so "I decided to impose short deadlines because it adds vitality to the enterprise."

It also is another way to get the word out on an issue that few are paying attention to.

"What many people don't realize is that only 15 percent of the inquiries and complaints filed every year under the Freedom of Information Act come from the media in Connecticut," Worcester says. "The other 85 percent come from people like you and me."

Most of them seek information that is not easily accessible, Treat says. And those complaints and questions are addressed twice a month on Wednesdays in downtown Hartford.

Treat and others in her class are the only media covering the commission regularly.

"You can't cover these things by telephone," Worcester says. "Because of the media's lack of interest, people may never know what kind of information they may be privy to. If we get to a point where it is perceived that no one cares about freedom of information, state and municipal governments will pass laws that will chip away at the statute and before you know it we're not going to be able to get information about anything."

Brian Ash, editor of Access, agrees.

"You can't have a democracy if you don't have access to what's going on in governmental organizations," he says. "Without freedom of information people can do or say anything they want without fear or repercussion."

If this were to happen, Worcester says, "public officials would be able to make decisions affecting their constituents without their knowing.

"It's human nature to want to think the best of people," he says. "It's human nature to want to think that if you vote for somebody, that person is going to be good enough to do a good job on your behalf. By covering the commission, we're making sure that government officials are not hiding their deliberations and making decisions they can't defend openly."

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