Over the last 20 years there’s been a surge in government offices and other employers prohibiting staff from ever speaking with journalists unless they first ask the public information officer or some person in management.
In addition to the surveillance factor that silences employees about most anything the bosses would not like, the policies often cause massive delays and officials frequently deny interview requests outright. Or they sit in on interviews or do other obstruction or manipulation.
SPJ has a good picture of this now. Carolyn Carlson of Kennesaw State University has now done seven surveys on behalf of the organization and they show a national culture interlaced with censorship. Most reporters who cover federal agencies say they must get PIO approval to interview agency employees and most say the public is not getting all the information it needs because of such restrictions. Forty percent of public agency PIOs say they block specific reporters because of “problems with their stories in the past.”
State and local, science and education reporters confirm the same kinds of problems.
Particularly chilling, most police reporters say they can rarely or never talk to a police officer without involving a PIO. And police PIOs say they must monitor interviews for reasons like, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”
What should journalists do?
Most importantly, go after the “Censorship by PIO” like the deep corruption it is. Any entity that prohibits people from communicating except when they notify the authorities is keeping information from the public. And that’s a misallocation of resources as serious as any other we investigate. It also creates an opacity that’s fertile ground for malfeasance and an unconscionable conflict of interest allowing officials to strangle investigation of their actions.
Investigate how long has it been happening in your area. Why do officials feel they have a right to do this? How often are delays and blockages happening? What about the fact that many times staff have tipped reporters off to serious issues? Are officials trying to stop that process?
Home in on one incident or series of nonresponses. Who in the food chain said a staff person could not speak? What was withheld? What were the power plays and the political motivations?
Ask why the public should trust official reasoning like, “We have to coordinate the story. We just want to know what is going on. We need to tell reporters the right person to talk to.”
Explain it to the public. It’s not “inside baseball.” It’s the public’s business. If you don’t feel you can write an unbiased news story, make it an editorial.
Explain it when it happens. Don’t just say, “XYZ agency declined to make an expert available.” Say, “XYZ agency prohibits all employees from speaking to the press about anything unless they notify the press office. It often denies such interviews. The PIO did not explain why experts could not speak to this reporter.”
Collaborate with journalists, news organizations and journalism groups on resistance. When agencies hold press conferences or briefings have reporters take turns asking why journalists can’t speak to people in the agency without the PIO guards. And report the response.
Don’t kid yourself that your great reporting skills get you all you need to know. We have no right to take that risk. Millions of employees have been told to shut up. So chances are good some silenced staff people—including those you talked to after going through the PIO—could blow your award-winning story out of the water. Or educate you about the mind-blowing stories you don’t have a clue about.
Remember that journalists’ acquiescence to “Censorship by PIO” is just as dangerous as the worst thing it will keep covered up. For instance, the press did hundreds of stories that CDC and FDA handed out over the last couple of years. But with PIO guards on us, we didn’t get—and probably could never have gotten—the fact that there were not strong, consensus guidelines for Ebola containment in place and there was a storeroom for pathogens that hadn’t been inventoried in decades (the one that contained smallpox).
Remember that likely the biggest reason we can’t do anything about these restraints is that journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.
In the meantime, as we fight the policies, we are obliged to use all techniques possible to undermine the blockages. For that:
Rely on PIOs as little as possible. Get away from PIO and agency oversight whenever you can, including during routine reporting. Many people will say something different away from the guards. Find out for yourself who you should talk to. Analyze staff listings, hearings and meeting agendas. Ask outside source people who in the agency works on the issue. Use search engines and literature searches to pinpoint who in an agency spoke or wrote on an issue. Then study the hierarchy to understand their position in it and other people close to them you might talk to.
Contact people directly and tell them you want to talk to them, even if you have to contact the PIO also. Sometimes the internal expert will advocate for the interview.
Interview outside sources and then contact the inside source persons in hopes they will want to respond to what you know.
When you talk to a source person, even if the PIO is listening in, ask who outside the agency is working on the issue. The source person may mention an interest group or person that the agency is actually talking to.
Consider holding the source person, particularly if they are an official, responsible: “Mr. Doe did not respond to attempts to contact him.” They should be responsive even if agency cultural norm is to hide behind the PIO.
Keep a running descriptive list of responses and nonresponses and hold agency leadership and elected officials accountable. Consider keeping the list on the web.
At least occasionally, do a series of incessant follow-ups. I contacted CDC about newborn circumcision 20 times as PIOs repeatedly refused to let me talk to their experts. Then I wrote a press release about it. Let your audience know what subjects the agencies are blocking information on.
Go to obscure meetings or sessions. Speakers sometimes forget reporters could be there. If possible, sign in as a member of the public, not as press.
Regularly give agency staff every possible way to contact you.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the IRE Journal.
Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.