Government PR Officials Increasingly Control News, Studies Find

Carolyn Carlson

Local, state and federal governments increasingly rely on a new breed of public relations officials to control news coverage, according to two major studies announced March 19 in Washington, DC.

“It’s no wonder the United States has dropped 13 spots this year in a ranking of countries in press freedom – down to 46th – behind Uganda, El Salvador and Botswana,” said Society of Professional Journalists President David Cuillier. His group co-sponsored the surveys of local and education reporters in cooperation with the Education Writers Association.

“It’s shameful what is happening in this country," he said. "It’s a war over information and we must take up arms.”

Panelists worried that a younger generation of reporters has accepted as a new normal government control of information through public information officers (PIOs). [Update: A DC web publication underscored the point by announcing that a former Fox News broadcaster had to take a public relations post for a local government, WTTG Reporter Audrey Barnes Named Laurel PIO.]

David Cuillier and Emily RichmondThe two studies measured the reactions of experienced local and education reporters, respectively, to the increasingly common practice whereby governments forbid their employees to discuss news with reporters without approval of PIOs, who often guide reporters to the right employee and sit in on major interviews.

“More than three‐fourths of the local reporters and 76 percent of the education writers agreed with the statement that they believed the public was not getting the public it needs” because of controls by public information officers (PIOs) said Kennesaw State University professor Carolyn Carlson, shown at right and lead researcher for the studies announced at the National Press Club as part of Sunshine Week events. “Eighty three percent said they predict conditions would get worse over the next five years.”

Landmarks in top-down control over education coverage included the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado and “No Child Left Behind” coverage during the Bush Administration, said Emily Richmond, public editor of the education writers association. She is shown in the photo with Cuillier.

Specifics of the studies co-authored by are available via links here. Carlson's studies beginning two years ago have documented delays and other barriers that sometimes occur when reporters must work through public affairs staff.

“Censorship is one of the most pernicious things that can happen in human societies, no matter what you call it, the legal basis for it is, or even the original intent in creating it,” said panel moderator Kathryn Foxhall. “It’s not just unethical. It’s drastically handicapping, muddling to people’s understanding and capabilities for solving problems. Information control has been foundational for most of the horrific events in human history.”

Foxhall, a freelancer and a member of the National Press Club Freedom of the Press Committee, provided this perspective:

Over about the last 20 years agencies and organizations have brought about a surge of policies of blocking reporters from ever communicating to staff unless they are tracked and/or monitored by the public affairs officers: the public relations controllers. This is powerful, mean censorship that’s now a cultural norm. On an historical basis it’s new and it’s radical. It is driven by the same motivations and has the same impact as censorship everywhere. Built on top of the mandate forcing reporter to notify “the authorities,” are myriad the other barriers including delays, outright denials, demands for questions in writing, etc.\

“What is so frustrating for journalists is that they have important stories they want to tell the public but government agencies often do everything they can to muzzle and manage the message,” said Cuillier, who directs the University of Arizona School of Journalism in addition to journalist society post. “Ultimately, the public loses because it isn’t getting the information it needs to self-govern. This isn’t about the government vs. the press. It’s the government vs. the citizen.”

He urged all journalism organizations to unite around a three-point reform plan, under an umbrella title he called “The Press Club”:

1. Write about this. Create a Wiki to report and rate bad PIOs – a RateMyPIO website. This isn’t inside baseball. This is not the government vs. the press. It’s the government vs. the people. Tell them.  
2. The second rule of ‘Press Club’ is that Press Club makes the rules. WE determine who we talk to, not the government. Work around. Don’t follow their rules. Create our own PIO best practices and get agencies to adopt them, or shame them when they don’t. Talk to who you want, when you want. What are they going to do, stop sending you press releases?
3. The third rule of Press Club is to change the game. Push back by going to the top. If you cover schools, get the school board to stop the practices. If you cover a federal agency, make this known to members of Congress. Journalism organizations should band together and go to President Obama and demand change. Real change. We need to dig deeper and investigate these agencies – what are they hiding? Once line employees see you aren’t playing along with the brass then they will come to you with even better stories.

“Sure, be professional and nice about it,” Cuillier continued. “But we must remember our responsibility to society. Right now that means pushing back to get the information the public needs. We, the press, carry a big club. Let’s use it.”

 

Contact the author Andrew Kreig
 
 

 

Related News Coverage

Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ surveys: Reporters say PIO controls getting worse, Staff report, March 19, 2014. On the eve of Sunshine Week 2014, the Society of Professional Journalists has released the results from two surveys about journalists’ experience with obtaining public information. The studies led by Dr. Carolyn S. Carlson — a communication professor from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. The first survey was of political and general assignment reporters working at the state and local level. The vast majority said the amount of control has been increasing over the past several years and they see it only getting worse over the next few years. They agreed the current level of media control by PIOs is an impediment to providing information to the public. The second survey focused on the nation's education reporters. Journalists indicated that public information officers often require pre-approval for interviews, decide who reporters get to interview and often monitor interviews. Sometimes they will prohibit interviews altogether. Education writers overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that “the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

DC Media Fishbowl, WTTG Reporter Audrey Barnes Named Laurel PIO, Patrick Tutwiler, March 24, 2014. "WTTG reporter Audrey Barnes will start work this week as the new Director of the Department of Communications of her hometown of Laurel, Maryland. Mayor Craig Moe made the announcement earlier this month, and Barnes will start on Wednesday. Mayor Moe says top priorities for Barnes will be establishing the Laurel Community Media Network Television station as the "go to" place for news about Laurel and ramping up the city's presence on social media. Congrats Audrey!"

Updates:

Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Letter urges President Obama to be more transparent, SPJ President David Cullier, July 8, 2014. The Society of Professional Journalists and 37 other journalism and open government groups today called on President Obama to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public. The letter is excerpted below:

Dear President Obama: You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in. Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship -- an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.

The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about. Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.” Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.

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