WASHINGTON—Reporting on the work of public agencies has become harder and harder, according to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). Increasingly, policies impede reporters from communicating with staff with knowledge or insights that could benefit the public, according to the group.
Government public information officers (PIOs) are the gatekeepers who block, track, and monitor access.
“[Blocking reporters] shuts staff people up totally about so many things that are the public’s business. It prevents reporters from doing what is only due diligence: finding out if the story looks different, which it frequently does, when people aren’t guarded at the behest of the bosses,” said Kathryn Foxhall, a veteran reporter in the Washington area. She usually covers health and medical issues, and sometimes reports on the Congress and the federal bureaucracy.
Foxhall spoke March 19 at the National Press Club to mark Sunshine Week, March 16–22, an annual event since 2005 “to promote open government and push back against excessive official secrecy.” Foxhall is a member of the National Press Club Freedom of the Press Committee.
Always going through a public affairs office would mean important stories won’t get told, she said.
“The gravediggers at Arlington Cemetery knew about the jumbled graves for years, janitors at Penn State knew about the child abuse for years,” said Foxhall.
“What is so frustrating for journalists is that they have important stories to tell the public but government agencies often do everything they can to muzzle and manage the message,” said David Cuillier, SPJ president, in a statement.
Cuillier sees the impediments for journalists’ reporting as a battle not between the government and the press, but “government versus the people.” He urged the journalists to band together and not accept this trend of PIOs blocking access to public information.
“If you cover schools, get the school board to stop the practices. If you cover a federal agency, make this known to members of Congress,” he said.
“We are watchdogs. The Founding Fathers intended us to have an adversarial relationship with government,” he said. Cuillier is also director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.
Teaching the Next Generation
Jennifer Babich, executive producer for Time Warner Cable, spoke of her interns, who are aspiring to become journalists, and their surprising reaction to an incident involving Congressman Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) in an interview with NY1 after the president’s State of Union address on Jan. 29.
The congressman threatened to throw a reporter off the balcony of the House rotunda for asking a question that he didn’t want asked. The question was about a Justice Department investigation of finance violations in his 2010 campaign. Grimm said he thought it was understood that all the questions would be about the State of Union speech.
Babich’s various interns independently asked her why this question wasn’t provided in advance. She repeatedly had to explain, “That’s not what journalists do.” Babich said Grimm agreed to the interview, there were no conditions to the interview, and “We are allowed to ask questions we need to ask.”
She concluded, “It is incumbent upon us to make sure that the next generation of journalists understand that [providing the question in advance] is not okay.”
Reporter Perception Surveys
Reporters described how access to government employees is blocked in two recent surveys. The first survey contacted education reporters who were members of the Education Writers Association, which sponsored the survey. The second survey reached local reporters; it was sponsored by EWA and SPJ. Carolyn S. Carlson, who is communications professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, led the surveys. She was formerly a reporter and editor for The Associated Press.
The surveys echoed a Sunshine Week report card on federal agencies, which said most agencies’ public affairs offices are making it difficult and oftentimes impossible to talk to employees.
Over half of respondents said that all the time or most of the time, “I am required to obtain approval from the public information office before interviewing employees,” as stated in the surveys.
“When they get the interview, often the PIOs are there too—either monitoring the interview in person or if it’s a telephone interview, they’re there on the phone as well,” said Carlson.
In both surveys, over half said their interviews are monitored at least some of the time.
More than three-fourths of reporters from both surveys said that the public was not getting the information it needs because of barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices, according to Carlson.
Yet, about three out of four reporters in both surveys said they had a positive working relationship with PIOs.
However, Emily Richmond, public editor for EWA, said, “It is not necessarily a good thing if reporters believe that it is part of a PIO’s job description to throw up roadblocks for reporter … PIOs should be gatekeepers, not prison guards.”
The local reporter survey found that 73 percent agreed that, “government information officers have been exercising increasingly tighter controls over interviewing and reporting process in recent years.”
More than 83 percent of the local reporters said they expect the degree of government control to increase over the next five years, 2 percent said it would decrease, and rest said it would stay the same.
Carlson noted that these opinions come from mostly veteran reporters with a median number of years of reporting experience of 15 years.