Journalists Say Federal Agencies Restrict Access

March 20, 2012 Updated: March 20, 2012

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the American Society of News Editors, with many co-sponsors, celebrated Sunshine Week from March 13-19. The week is meant to tell people about their legal rights to government information, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act of 1966.

In honor of the week, SPJ in February surveyed reporters who cover federal government agencies, and found that information is so constrained by public affairs officers that “most reporters consider the control to be a form of censorship and an impediment to providing information to the public.”

Carolyn Carlson, David Cuillier and Lindsey Tulkoff of SPJ wrote in their summary of the survey that “about 85 percent of the journalists agreed with the statement ‘The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.'”

The reporters complained that agencies imposed barriers on interviewing staff members, by “requiring pre-approval before granting interviews, outright prohibiting reporters from talking to some staff members, monitoring interviews, and selectively routing requests for interviews.

A majority, seven out of ten, also agreed with the statement “I consider government agency controls over who I interview a form of censorship.”

Despite the criticism about lack of openness, many of the reporters surveyed said they had good relationships with public information officers. In the open-ended part of the survey, one respondent, writing about PIOs monitoring interviews, said “They will sit in the interviews, often recording them to check against whatever I write (which is not a bad idea on their part).” Another wrote “Most PIOs are great. But what can you do about the duds or jerks?”

For the survey, SPJ identified a sample of journalists who covered politics, justice, education, courts, science, education and environment. Most were general assignment, full time reporters at wire services or newspapers.