Is there a (lucky) journalist covering government who hasn’t had to deal with a public information officer, or PIO? Unlikely. And don’t fool yourself — sometimes they may not have the title, but they still do the job.
In the past, you’d call up the specific person in government you needed to get information from, and they’d tell you what you needed. Not so anymore. From the largest federal department to the smallest city, everyone is trying to manage the media through PIOs.
Even if you have the direct number of the person you need to talk to, there’s a good chance they’ll refuse to talk to you (“policy”) and make you go to the PIO.
PIOs generally have one big problem: They usually don’t have the information you need. But, depending on the policies, you may have to go through them to get the information or to have them get the source to call you.
There is another culture-changing problem. Whether or not they like it, PIOs serve as censors for their bosses. Often staff members know a lot they won’t say when PIOs are tracking — at the leadership’s behest — who is talking to which reporter.
By the time you get the information, you have no idea how scrubbed, sanitized, spun or even accurate it is.
Government entities claim they can help the media get the most accurate information this way, that it’s the most efficient and that it serves their constituents best.
That’s nothing more than a PR-spun crock. We at SPJ recognize it for what it is: censoring the media by controlling newsgathering at the source.
We’re working to fight it on a national level. We’ve got to fight it on every front.
Here are some incredible examples of why:
Linda is the managing editor of a group of suburban community papers. Recently, a small-city PIO told her she thought the papers should show her the “professional courtesy” of having their reporter call her regularly and tell her what stories she’s working on.
Another suggested the newspaper fire a reporter hired to cover her city and replace her with someone they liked better who had applied for the position.
On the federal level, an SPJ survey this spring of reporters who cover federal agencies found that information is “highly regulated by public affairs officers,” and most reporters consider the process censorship. More on the survey is here.
This summer the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refused to allow a reporter to talk to its experts who had dealt with one of the worst tuberculosis out breaks in 20 years, saying state and local officials should take the lead in responding.
When a federal health services psychologist told superiors that child abuse was being ignored on a North Dakota reservation, the Department of Health and Human Services would not allow a New York Times reporter to talk to him.
What can you do?
1. Don’t roll over. Don’t just take the fodder PIOs feed you. Do your job. Journalists’ lack of opposition to this is inducing it.
2. Work hard to skirt the monitors. Whenever you can, talk to sources without the knowledge of PIOs or anyone who would track the contact. Have confidential conversations if necessary, since they can be critical to your understanding and may prevent you from publishing political hogwash. Talk to as many of the “wrong people” as possible.
3. Share your source contact lists. This seems contrary to traditional, competitive journalism, but where you can, share direct contact information with your colleagues, members of your SPJ chapter, your peers in the field.
4. Kill the PIOs with kindness. Bombard the PIOs with many legitimate requests — nicely. Sometimes, they’ll get so sick of you, they’ll give you the direct information for the person you’re looking for.
5. Protest at every turn. Every time you’re denied access to information, protest. Send a protest email to the head of the agency, to the mayor, the governor, the president. Have your editor/news director send one too.
6. Ask impertinent questions. Why is staff forbidden to speak without surveillance? Why can’t this administration be as open as the last administration that did not do this?
7. Share with your audience. Let them know when you can’t get the information they need. We’ve got to shake off the old attitude that the media can’t be its own advocate. State in the story, “Mayor Jones prohibits all agency employees from speaking to reporters without notifying the agency’s public information office.” Or editorialize. You can cite the 2010 SPJ resolution on the issue (see spj.org/res2010.asp).
8. Investigate it. When did it start in your community? Where did the idea come from? Did anyone have any ethical qualms about controlling information? Do they teach this at conferences for local officials?
9. Work nationally. Work with SPJ and others to make PIO censorship a prominent, national issue.
More information is on Kathryn’s blog: profficecensorship.blogspot.com.