The Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Health Care Journalists have called on the administration to end the prohibitions many federal agencies have against any employee speaking to journalists unless the conversations are tracked and monitored by the public relations office. This practice, which has grown up and become more and more restrictive over about the last 15 years, is censorship and reduces ...more »
The Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Health Care Journalists have called on the administration to end the prohibitions many federal agencies have against any employee speaking to journalists unless the conversations are tracked and monitored by the public relations office.
This practice, which has grown up and become more and more restrictive over about the last 15 years, is censorship and reduces severely what the public is allowed to know about the agencies’ processes.
Staff members are frequently far more informative when they are not being tracked or monitored. Sometimes they point reporters to reliable information that is not mentioned in official releases or that would indicate why official statements are misleading. Sometimes they point out waste or abuse of power. Often neither Congress nor the public would understand critical points if it were not for these communications.
On the other hand, with monitoring in place, officials dictate an official story and staff members rarely deviate from it.
In addition, many interviews are simply never allowed. The application process to speak is often lengthy, discouraging journalists from trying. Public affairs officers often don’t get back to the reporter or they simply deny permission to speak.
Whistleblower protections are absolutely essential and should be made much stronger. However, for most matters, if we wait for whistleblowers to speak up publically, thus alienating the people they work for, we will remain in ignorant bliss, perhaps forever. We need journalists and federal staff members talking on a normal, fluid basis, confidentially if necessary.
In 1972, a 40-year experiment that withheld syphilis treatment from 399 African American men was ended only after a federal staff member educated an Associated Press reporter about that program. Today that kind of “unofficialized” contact between reporter and staff is outlawed.
This censorship will induce malfeasance at some point, probably many points. We need to call a halt to it.
Below are excerpts from the associations’ letters:
From the Association of Healthcare Journalists:
In the spirit of government transparency, the Association of Health
Care Journalists respectfully calls on you to end policies that require
public affairs officers to approve and monitor journalists' interviews
with federal staff.
Such policies, which are in place at such critical agencies as the
Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the
National Institutes of Health, and most agencies of the Department of
Health and Human Services, hamper newsgathering and interfere with
the public's right to know.
These policies make it difficult for reporters to fulfill their obligation
to hold government accountable to the citizens it serves. In practice,
they limit the number of contacts reporters can make and increase the
probability of erroneous or incomplete information being passed to
the public. Further, they deny the public access to the vast reservoir of
experts who are paid by their tax dollars.
Public information officers can play a key role in facilitating and
coordinating communication, but often they are used to inhibit the
flow of information to the public rather than foster it. It is common for
reporters to wait days for permission to conduct an interview.
Sometimes a request is simply ignored or denied entirely. Such red
tape is particularly onerous in the online era, when stories are reported
and published in a matter minutes or hours.
The monitoring of interviews poses another blockade that chills
communication by signaling to staff members that their words must
comply with an "official story."
Restrictions on journalists' access to federal sources have grown
during the last two presidential administrations. This trend should be
reversed. We urge you to take the following steps to restore the free
flow of information:
• Instruct federal agencies to review their policies to ensure they foster
rather than impede newsgathering.
• Restore direct access to sources and prohibit requirements that
journalists and federal staff members notify or obtain permission from
a public affairs officer or other official to conduct an interview.
• Prohibit requirements that dictate the monitoring of interviews by public affairs staff.
The federal government sets the standard for state and local governments, private organizations, businesses, and other nations. To maintain our democracy and restore confidence in public institutions, it is imperative that federal agencies operate in the sunshine.
From the Society of Professional Journalists:
The Society of Professional Journalists strongly urges President Obama to put an end to the practice of federal public affairs officers monitoring calls between reporters and federal employees.
For years, the federal government has become increasingly controlling of what government employees say to the press, to the point of muzzling the flow of information that the public needs. We object to the inherited practice of requiring journalists to get approval from public relations officers to interview government employees. When such requests are denied the public is poorly served. Usually the most accurate information comes from the federal employees closest to the facts, not a go-between person potentially intent on spinning the information for political purposes. This practice is a disservice to Americans.
Public information officers play an important role in providing information and facilitating interviews, but previous administrations have used these positions to increase secrecy, not understanding. We are hopeful the president will stick to his promise of making government more transparent and more accountable by ending this disturbing method of information control.