Medill Watchdog studies government that's out of sight | Bleader

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Medill Watchdog studies government that's out of sight

Posted By on 06.20.13 at 07:35 AM

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When the curtains are drawn, God knows what shenanigans go on behind them. The goal of investigative journalism is to look behind the curtains.

Medill Watchdog's new project is a little different. It looks at the curtains themselves. Transparency in Suburban Government is a package of stories examining barriers to the kind of information residents of a place are entitled to if they're to function as informed citizens. There's a particular focus on DuPage County:

Every year nearly 5,000 elected and appointed officials across DuPage County fill out state-mandated forms on which they are supposed to list any outside financial interests that conflict with their public duties. But they do so on paper forms that are kept behind the counter at the DuPage County Clerk, where they are seldom reviewed by anyone . . .

That is one way, a Medill Watchdog review found, that suburban residents struggle to get basic information about their government. There are others as well: local agencies withhold from the public documents that are supposed to be public, despite the provisions of the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Citizens are denied information and, in the worst cases, feel they suffer retribution for even fighting for that information. Those who get riled up enough to run for spots on boards may find that, even if they win, they have trouble getting information or raising public questions.

One of the stories looks at ways in which the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is routinely flouted by public bodies (in particular, the Chicago Public Schools).

Medill Watchdog was launched in 2011 as a response to the ebbing manpower of professional media. To quote its website, "paid interns . . . collectively undertake records research, create and analyze databases and mix in shoe-leather reporting to accomplish comprehensive public service journalism of the sort that news organizations find increasingly difficult to undertake." Earlier projects saw the interns teaming up with established media outlets; Transparency in Suburban Government is the first that Media Watchdog produced entirely on its own. Its website asserts:

"Last year, we began studying all the ways that democracy around Chicagoland suffers from opaqueness. And we redoubled our efforts to do something about it."

This admirable mission can be faulted in only one respect—nomenclature. Opaqueness is an ungainly word and use of it sullies the cause. Please—opacity.

In written usage, it's opacity over opaqueness by a margin of 15 to 1. And it's opacities over opaquenesses by a lot more than that.

When in the world would anyone want to use a word like opaquenesses? Medill Bulldog has just put the concept on the table. As it did not say, but might have: "It's hard to say which is more opaque—the DuPage County Clerk, the DuPage County Forest Preserve, or the Chicago Public Schools. But the opaquenesses of all these public institutions are so high they're disgraceful."

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