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Thursday, April 11, 2013
From the President

Be mindful of those treading close to censorship

By Sonny Albarado

On March 13, a member of Vice President Joe Biden’s press office staff demanded that a student journalist delete photos he had taken during a university-sponsored event featuring Biden.

“It’s clear from the circumstance that the journalist did nothing wrong,” Philip Merrill College of Journalism Dean Lucy Dalglish is quoted in a Capital News Service story about the incident. (Dalglish is former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)

In a letter of protest, Dalglish wrote: “Rockville is not a third-world country where police-state style media censorship is expected. I request an immediate apology. ... I also request that your staff be trained in basic First Amendment rights of citizens and media ...”

The temptation may be strong to call this an aberration, a misunderstanding between an over-zealous press staffer and a green reporter. But that would ignore the fact that the incident highlights a problem that has worsened in recent years: the conflict between journalists and government public information officers.

Over the past decade or so, the Internet and the advent of social media have made it easier for government agencies and officials to disseminate information to the public unfiltered by journalists. That is certainly government’s right and often a benefit to the public.

But when government agencies and elected officials prohibit staff and subordinate agency heads from communicating with journalists and insist on tracking or monitoring any contact with journalists, the public is ill-served.

SPJ, through its Freedom of Information Committee, sponsored a study last year on “mediated access,” surveying journalists who cover federal agencies to learn how those reporters perceive the role of PIOs.

Released in time for Sunshine Week 2012, the survey report “found that information flow in the United States is highly regulated by public affairs officers, to the point where most reporters considered the control to be a form of censorship and an impediment to providing information to the public.”

As part of SPJ’s effort to draw attention to this issue, the study’s principal author, Carolyn Carlson, volunteered to survey public information officers this year. She’s a member of the FOI Committee, a past national SPJ president and a professor at Kennesaw State University.

Carlson surveyed current and former members of the National Association of Government Communicators, which represents PIOs and PAOs for federal, state and local government agencies. Carlson and SPJ released the new survey report in time for Sunshine Week 2013 (March 10- 16). NAGC is a co-sponsor of the report.

“Monitoring reporters’ interviews with government officials has become a routine practice among government public relations officials, mainly to protect against misquotes,” the latest report says.

Ensuring accuracy regarding an agency’s information or an official’s words is justifiable and certainly part of a PIO/ PAO’s job description.

In reaction to this growing trend, a new group formed last year in the wake of the 2012 Mediated Access report. Stop the New American Censorship aims to focus awareness on what it sees as the silencing of thousands of people who could speak about matters that are the public’s business if only their minders (PIOs) would let them. (Disclosure: SNAC’s leadership is composed of some members of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee.)

Kathryn Foxhall, a freelance health trade journalist and co-founder of the new group, also created a blog, BlockingReportingUSA, to collect examples of this kind of heavy-handed interference with journalists. Old journalistic hands and PR veterans might say in response that a good reporter learns how to go around the PIO and develop good sources.

Too often, though, going around the press office results in punishment, not just for the reporter but for the agency employee foolish enough to speak, even off the record. Or a Catch-22 situation develops, as in an item from the BlockingReportingUSA blog in which a reporter calls the elections division of the Missouri secretary of state’s office to ask a question about ballot petitions. The reporter is put on hold briefly, after which a new voice comes on the line. He repeats his question and is told:

“Well, let me check with the elections division …"

“Wait a minute,” I say, “where are you? Aren’t you in the elections division?”

“No, I’m in the information division. We handle all media calls.”

“So I called the elections division with a simple question and got sent to you and now you have to contact the elections division to find out what I wanted to ask them?”

“Yes, if you’ll give me your contact number I can go get that for you.”

The same reporter noted on his own blog:

“Information the public deserves to have is being hidden, intentionally, by public officials, those who claim to be public servants, those who ask the public to trust them to carry out policies for the public good. One of the roles of the media should be to let the public know if that trust is being abused.”

He’s absolutely right.

Sonny Albarado is the 2012-13 SPJ president and projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Reach him at salbarado@spj.org.

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