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The public’s right to know

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Virginians strongly support the principle of the public’s right to know.

    Virginians believe it is important to place public notices in newspapers.
    Virginians would read public notices less frequently and with less trust if these appeared only on government Web sites.
    These are the key results of a recent survey, examining the views of 500 adult Virginians about the principle of the public’s right to know and the placement of public notices, conducted by DecideSmart for the Virginia Press Association (VPA).
    The VPA, a longtime advocate for the public’s right to know, commissioned the survey as an independent method of gauging Virginians’ support of the public’s right to know and their thoughts on the placement of public notices, which for more than 200 years have been published in newspapers.
    A public notice is a formal announcement or warning that is legally required to be published as an advertisement in a paid-circulation newspaper. It helps citizens learn about plans and actions that will impact them and their community. Public notices may be published for a variety of reasons, including business and licensing matters, public meetings, zoning, requests for proposals, local government matters and elections.
    By publishing notices in newspapers, government serves the public’s right to know and maintains its own transparency. Newspapers are a reliable, accessible form of circulating public notices to the public and provide an archival record of government actions.
    Since early September, the VPA has been conducting a campaign, “Keep the Light on Public Notices,” to increase Virginians’ awareness of public notices in newspapers.
    Elected officials, however, have proposed taking public notices out of independent newspapers and posting them only on government Web sites, giving government control over what the public is allowed to know. Instead of reading notices in newspapers that are delivered on a regular schedule, citizens would have to search for notices on websites, a practice that would be even more difficult for those who lack computer access. The principles of the public’s right to know and of government accountability to its citizens would be threatened.
    The survey results, outlined below, demonstrate that Virginians are overwhelmingly committed to the principle of their right to know, expect government to act transparently, trust newspapers more than government websites as sources of information and would read public notices much less often if they appeared only on government websites.
    Virginians are very committed to the principle of the public’s right to know what their government is doing and planning. 97 percent of the respondents in the survey said that the principle of the public’s right to know what their government is doing and planning is either very important (79 percent) or somewhat important (18 percent). Only 3 percent of respondents reported that it is not so important (2 percent) or not important or not important at all (1 percent) to them. 94 percent of respondents said that keeping the citizenry informed of public notices/legal advertisements in newspapers is an important function of government agencies.
    Del. Riley E. Ingram (R-Hopewell), chairman of the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns, said, “The survey results strongly confirm my experience that Virginians expect the activities of government to be conducted openly, fairly and transparently.  Virginians clearly have a deep commitment to the fundamental principles of democratic governance.  Newspapers, both daily and weekly, continue to have a prominent role in the maintenance of these principles throughout Virginia’s communities.”
    Virginians would read public notices less frequently if these were placed only on government websites. 63 percent of respondents said that they would read public notices much less often (36 percent) or less often (27 percent) if these were placed only on government Web sites. Only 16 percent of respondents said that they would read public notices much more often (4 percent) or more often (12 percent) if these were placed only on government Web sites. 72 percent of respondents have not gone to a government website to read a public notice.
    Removing public notices and legal advertisements from newspapers would reduce citizens’ public access to the workings of their government and would penalize small business owners across Virginia who depend upon community newspapers for fair access to contracting opportunities.
    Virginians have more trust in public notices placed in newspapers than on government websites.
    The survey asked respondents to rate the level of trust and credibility they had in public notices that appeared on government websites and those that appeared in newspapers. 52 percent of respondents gave public notices printed in newspapers one of the two highest ratings on the trust and credibility scale compared to 31 percent of respondents who gave public notices printed on government Web sites  one of the two highest ratings on the same scale.
    These results show that Virginians continue to understand that the newspapers serving their communities perform a very important role in providing independent verification and establishing a permanent record of the information that government provides citizens.
    For additional information about the survey, contact VPA Executive Director Ginger Stanley at gingers@vpa.net or 804-521-7575, or Bob Holsworth, Ph.D., of DecideSmart, bholsworth@decidesmart.com or 804-665-1180.

— Virginia Press Association