UNC journalism professor Ryan Thornburg wins Sunshine Award

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition awarded a Sunshine Award for Citizen transparency work to Associate Professor Ryan Thornburg, who teaches journalism in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The award was presented at the annual N.C. News and Information Summit held at Elon University on Sunshine Day.

The Sunshine Award recognizes Thornburg’s efforts to use public records law to shine a light on university officials’ secretive move to monitor faculty and staff e-mail accounts after the News & Observer obtained a copy of the contract governing the Hussman Family Foundation’s $25 million pledge to the School of Journalism and Media at UNC.

Thornburg also led a group of journalists and journalism educators from around the state in a collaborative project to request documents related to the UNC Board of Trustees’ controversial pocket-veto of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure case in the summer of 2021. Thornburg’s work was critical to conceptualizing the public records strategy and to developing a shared database of the responsive records that he insisted on sharing with journalists and members of the public who were interested in governance issues at UNC. That database and the work based on it helped the public understand more about donor influence at UNC, as well as the subsequent investigations of faculty after those faculty expressed concern about that influence.

Thornburg said that UNC is a focus of transparency and accountability advocates for a reason. “UNC is a massive public agency with a critical role in the future of our state. We are talking about billions of dollars being spent tp create new knowledge and to help young people find their future.”

The transparency concerns emanating from UNC are a microcosm of larger political fights playing out across the United States, Thornburg said. “Universities across the country are at the center of political debates about what knowledge is important. I think it’s always important to hold that power accountable. UNC is one of the state’s most trusted and most beloved and most unique institutions and it has incredible meaning and importance for the people of North Carolina. One of the ways that UNC can maintain that relationship is do a good job and a better job at holding a light up to itself and being strong enough to withstand questions.”

When asked about leading public transparency projects, Thornburg said, “Sometimes it’s really quite solitary work so it’s been really great connect with a community of people who understand how important it is to shine sunshine on government agencies. This work doesn’t just happen by itself. “

Thornburg wishes to thank the following people and organizations who supported his efforts to increase transparency at UNC:

Brooks Fuller, Director, N.C. Open Government Coalition, Elon University

Shannan Bowen, Executive Director, N.C. Local News Workshop, Elon University

Neal Caren, Associate Professor of Sociology, UNC-Chapel Hill

Paul Cuadros, Associate Professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Victoria Smith Ekstrand, Associate Professor & Caroline H. and Thomas S. Royster Distinguished Professor for Graduate Education, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Jordan Green, adjunct faculty, Journalism Program, Wake Forest University and staff reporter at Raw Story

Calvin L. Hall, Department Chair & Associate Professor, North Carolina Central University Department of Mass Communication

Pam Kelley, freelance journalist and former higher education reporter, The Charlotte Observer

Daniel Kreiss, Edgar Thomas Cato Distinguished Associate Professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and Principal Researcher, Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life; Faculty Affiliate, Information Society Project at Yale Law School

Mandy Locke, adjunct faculty, Journalism Program, Wake Forest University

Trevy A. McDonald, Julian W. Scheer Term Associate Professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Erin Siegal McIntyre, Assistant Professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Kate Murphy, Higher Education Reporter, The News & Observer

Kate Sheppard, Senior National Editor, HuffPost, and Teaching Associate Professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Melanie Sill, founder, N.C. Local News Lab and former executive editor of The News & Observer

Praveena Somasundaram, Editor-in-Chief, The Daily Tar Heel

David Squires, Adjunct Lecturer, Journalism, N.C. A&T University

Ryan Thornburg, Associate Professor, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Kyle Villemain, Editor-in-Chief, The Assembly

Barry Yeoman, freelance journalist, Adjunct Instructor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and Adjunct Instructor of Journalism, Wake Forest University

Phoebe Zerwick, Director of the Journalism Program, Wake Forest University

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