As protests erupt in the wake of police brutality, one key point for journalists to remember is that many police agencies have enforced silence on police officers. And that creates an historically fearful secrecy.
In an SPJ-sponsored 2016 survey, 56% of police reporters said they can rarely or never interview a police officer without involving a department’s public information officer. Another 30% said they can do those interviews only some of the time.
Over 23% of police reporters said, all or most of the time, they had been prevented by a PIO from interviewing officers or investigators. A total of 57% said that blockage happened at least some of the time.
Seventy-nine percent of police information officers said they felt it was necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with police officers from their agencies. Twenty-eight percent said they felt justified in not answering questions and/or refusing reporters’ interview requests, “If I feel it could reveal damaging information about the law enforcement agency or its employees.”
These controls are a deliberate withholding of information from the public, which is, itself, oppression.
SPJ has made it a priority to oppose the restrictions that prohibit staff from speaking to journalists without restriction or supervision while these restrictions have surged so much over the last few decades as to become a cultural norm. Agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have used these restrictions to all but close down independent newsgathering.
So, if journalists can’t have normal conversations that lead to real understanding of police, who can?
Most police officers are due much respect and gratitude. That’s evident from the tension-reducing steps many officers take during protests.
However, there are some scenes that are almost certainly the product of internal police cultures showing themselves. An officer coolly, skillfully killing a man by kneeling on his neck. The three other officers with him exhibiting no concern, as if waiting for a routine procedure to finish. Police officers again and again targeting reporters at protests, even against well-established policies.
In the coming days, there will be many attempts at police reform. There will be work to retrain police officers to allow reporters to cover protests or other incidents without interference.
But it is equally as critical that journalists fight to “be there” on ordinary days, to understand the people and the culture before toxicity spills out. If we can’t speak with police officers without censors, we aren’t “there.” We are marginalized. And that marginalizes the public.
By not addressing this, the press can be part of the problem. Rather than opening up things to disinfecting sunshine, we too often are a major force for leaving issues to fester till next time, not even telling people how all this dangerous stuff works.
This is certainly a good time to take the suggestion of First Amendment Attorney Frank LoMonte that news organizations can bring legal action to end such blockages.
He said, “We can say with a high degree of confidence, a slam dunk degree of confidence, that it is not legal for a public agency to maintain a policy that says that employees will suffer some kind of retaliation or reprisal or punishment if they are caught talking to the news media without approval.”
RESOURCES ON “CENSORSHIP BY PIO”
- SPJ’s website on the issue gives background. It includes the seven SPJ-sponsored surveys that showed the censorship is pervasive. Coalitions of open government groups have written to the Obama and Trump Administrations opposing the restraints. A coalition met with Obama White House officials in 2015 to oppose the restraints.
- The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan’s recent column looks at the muzzling of government scientists.
- Columbia Journalism Review article connects the long history of these controls with current circumstances, such as the CDC being terrifyingly absent.
- An editorial in MedPage Today asks “You Think China Has A COVID-19 Censorship Problem? We Aren’t Much Better.”
- The Clearing the Fog podcast includes an episode entitled “Another Method of Censorship: Media Minders.” The relevant portion of the show begins at about 32.54 and the site includes a transcript.
- Quill featured an article on “CDC Sued Over Release of Policies Restricting Free Speech.”
- On Oct. 17, 2019, the House Science Space and Technology Committee voted to kill proposed provisions that would have given federal scientists the right to speak to reporters without prior permission from the authorities in their agencies. Science Magazine reported on the mark-up.
- In its most recent resolution on the issue, the SPJ says the constraints are authoritarian and the public has a right to be dubious of statements from organizations in which employees can’t speak without guards.
- On Nov. 6, 2019, SPJ and 28 other journalism and open government groups sent a letter to every member of Congress calling for support of unimpeded communication with journalists for all federal employees.
- Katherine Eban’s 2019 book “Bottle of Lies,” a jaw-dropping look at FDA failure, is on several “best books” lists. When my MedPage editorial (above) came out, Eban said this muzzling of government scientists was the reason it took 10 years to write the book.
Kathryn Foxhall is a veteran reporter in the Washington, D.C., area specializing in health and medical issues. Twitter: @KathF Online: http://profficecensorship.blogspot.com/