Government transparency with South Dakota media has its ups, downs

Tom A. Savage, Contributing writer

In the fall of 1987, I enrolled at the University of Sioux Falls pursuing a degree in journalism.

If someone would have told me at that time what journalism was going to look like 35 years into my career, I’m not entirely certain I would have continued down the path.

But, I’m grateful I did. Even though the profession has come with some level of skepticism over the past several years, I love telling stories. 

Everyone on the planet has a unique story to tell. I sometimes receive thank you notes or emails for a feature I’ve written. My response is always the same: “It’s your story. I just happen to be the guy who told it.”

Thankfully, much of my writing is very feature-focused. Those are much easier to write because most of the time it’s positive. Not always, but most of the time.

The hard news writing is part of it, too. That’s where things can get a little sticky. The truth hurts sometimes, and many people don’t like to read it.

I’ve covered sports for more than three decades. Oftentimes when I’ve checked in at the desk with my credential, the person behind the desk will say something like, “make sure you write good stuff about us.”

My response, everytime, is: “That all depends on what your team does. It’s not up to me.”

With the Journal, I split my time between sports and news, and I enjoy doing non-sports as well. It’s actually opened my eyes to so many other things that I find interesting. 

At last week’s District 2 Legislature Candidate Forum, a question was raised to the three House GOP candidates in this June’s primary about transparency in government in regards to the news media. An example given from the moderator was about a recent South Dakota Department of Transportation Open House regarding Brandon’s Exit 406 off of Interstate 90 where citizens were allowed to ask any questions of the DOT reps on site. However, local news media were told they must contact the governor’s office to ask for permission to ask questions.

That’s a problem, but not surprising.

Speaking with many of my journalist friends who’ve worked on the news side of things for years, trying to get information from our state is difficult.

“We have some of the worst open records laws in the country,” one journalist friend told me. “Being a journalist here and covering government is a lot like having to train as an athlete with ankle weights on all the time. You just assume you’re not going to get the records in this state.”

I appreciate the sports reference they threw back at me. Clearly, they know my strengths aren’t at the state house in Pierre.

I will say, on a local level, the transparency is quite good. I’ve never had a problem getting in touch with any of our elected officials from Brandon, Valley Springs or east Sioux Falls.

Every time I’ve called, I’ve gotten a quick call back. They’ve been open with me and never held back. I appreciate that. That’s the way it should be.

“Transparency and access aren’t synonymous, but it’s better than nothing,” a political writer friend told me.

It’s not just our current Governor that’s been difficult to pin down. Several journalist friends have told me that Kristi Noem isn’t alone when it comes to transparency. Governors Janklow, Rounds and Daugaard have also hidden behind some of South Dakota’s transparency laws.

“Every politician, when they run for office, says they’re going to do better about it,” another journalist friend said. “They get into office and they start trying to get better about it, and then a month or two in, it’s back to the way it was. Noem is not worse than anyone else.”

Considering the difficult month or so Noem has had following the release of her new book, No Going Back, it’s probably understandable she’s gone into hiding. But she did speak with several national media outlets after the news broke of her odd entries in her book.

But not in South Dakota. Her only time answering questions from South Dakota reporters since that time was last week in Pierre when she held a press conference regarding recent storylines with the state’s Native American reservations. She took only a few questions, and then left. Neither question was about her book as reporters were told she wouldn’t be talking about it.

Again, considering the fallout, I guess I get it.

“We used to get pretty good access to Noem. We would have to pull teeth to get records, but we could at least get some interaction with that office,” one reporter told me. “But ever since the dog stuff, they’ve really battened down the hatchets and they won’t respond to us.”

Thankfully, all dogs in our area are accounted for, and our elected officials have kept an open line of communication with the Journal.



The Brandon Valley Journal


The Brandon Valley Journal
1404 E. Cedar St.
Brandon, SD 57005
(605) 582-9999

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