Sherman's reporting exposed North Carolina bill that would have made death investigation records confidential.
The North Carolina Open Government Coalition awarded the 2021 Sunshine Award for Journalism to Lucille Sherman, of the Raleigh News & Observer, for her reporting on a provision buried in a 17-page bill that could have made many death investigation records confidential in North Carolina.
While most North Carolinians were asleep on June 26, 2020, Sherman was at the North Carolina General Assembly poring over Senate Bill 168, a “clean-up bill” that may have created an immense loophole in North Carolina’s transparency laws surrounding death investigation records held by the state’s Chief Medical Examiner.
Under North Carolina law, records of death investigations created by law enforcement are generally exempt from disclosure under the public records law. Death investigation records transmitted to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, however, generally become public. Senate Bill 168, which included mostly technical fixes commonly included in end-of-session legislation, went further. The bill exempted death investigation records from disclosure even after they are no longer part of a law enforcement investigation.
Sherman believed the bill raised serious transparency implications by undoing North Carolina law requiring disclosure of deaths investigated by the state. “Seeing a public records provision as the title in one of the provisions embedded in the bill made me take a closer look,” Sherman said. Sherman spent the next day consulting with public records experts and interviewing lawmakers to tell the story of Senate Bill 168’s origins. After sources confirmed her initial interpretations of the bill’s legal effects, Sherman said, “I went ahead and tweeted it.” The story gained attention from transparency advocates around the country. Ultimately, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill and the death records confidentiality provision never became law.
Although public records stories are often unremarkable, they have broader significance in the context of current events. The North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 168 just one month after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. “There are a lot of things that local journalists report on at any given time during any given legislative session that are equally as important as this,” Sherman said. “This story just sort of struck the nerve of people at the wrong time. Journalists are on the floor of the legislature or the house chamber all the time and that’s why we need them to sort of be watchdogs.”
Transparency advocates who followed Sherman’s reporting were swift to demand explanations from North Carolina lawmakers. After Sherman’s reporting, State Senator Jeff Jackson said plainly, “[We] need to fix this one.”
Sherman represented the tip of the spear in an effort by the North Carolina press corps to inform the public of Senate Bill 168’s transparency implications. “I wouldn’t have had the ability to sort of just sit on the floor and skeptically think about everything legislators were saying if it weren’t for the sheer number of people on the News & Observer’s team.” Sherman thanked her editor, Jordan Schrader, and colleagues Kate Martin (Carolina Public Press) and Nick Ochsner (’11, WBTV-Charlotte), for their help reporting the story. Sherman, Schrader, Martin and Ochsner are part of the North Carolina Watchdog Reporting Network, a coalition of journalists focused on government accountability reporting.
“It’s easy to forget the importance of the role of journalists,” Sherman said. “You can never have too many watchdogs in the state house.”