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Agencies restrict media access, survey of journalists finds

Public information officers faulted for shielding employees from questioning.

Reporters who cover the federal government encounter roadblocks that hinder their ability to keep the general public informed, according to a survey released Monday.

The Society of Professional Journalists found that agency press staff subjected reporters to “alarming” rules requiring preapproval of interviews with employees, some outright prohibitions on interviews and sometimes-intrusive monitoring of interviews once they were granted. The survey was completed by 146 Washington-based reporters between Jan. 23 and Feb.24.

“Reporters in Washington are struggling to give the public an objective view of the federal government, but are running into interference rather than assistance from the very people hired by the government to help them,” said Carolyn Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Carlson led the study, for which 776 reporters were initially contacted.

“Public affairs officers need to facilitate media coverage, not interfere or block it,” she said.

John Ensslin, president of the 8,000-member SPJ, called the findings “a dismaying trend. Government works best when there’s a free flow of information at all levels. The strategy of spokespeople acting as the spigots of that information inevitably backfires by fostering leaks and intrigue instead of the sunshine of full disclosure.”

Three-quarters of the working journalists reported that they have to get approval from public affairs officers before interviewing agency employees. Two-thirds said agencies outright prohibit reporters from interviewing employees “some or most of the time.” And some 84 percent said their interviews have been monitored in person or over the phone by public information officers.

Seven of 10 reporters agreed with the statement, “I consider government agency controls over who I interview a form of censorship.” And 85 percent agreed “the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

Not all the results were negative. About 70 percent of the journalists said they had a positive relationship with the public information officers with whom they work, and most reported that officers quickly responded to their queries most of the time.

Edward Pound, director of communications for the Recovery Board, told Government Executive after reading the survey: “We do our best here to give access to reporters seeking information from senior agency officials. Different agencies have different policies, and when I was a reporter I found it frustrating. But we’re interested in helping, not hindering reporters.”

John Verrico, director of professional development for the National Association of Government Communicators, said it is not the policy of public affairs staff to “control” information.

“Government public affairs personnel should be considered a journalist’s best friend. Our role is that of a facilitator, not a blockade to a story,” he said. “It is in the best interests of both of us to see that a reporter gets the information he or she needs in order to write an accurate account of whatever the issue may be.”

He went on to note that in today’s journalism world, “the luxury of having a dedicated beat reporter has become rare, so government spokespersons are working with general assignment reporters more often than not. For a reporter just coming onto a topic for the first time, it is beneficial to have someone to turn to for clarity and context that may not be apparent in a subject-matter-expert’s initial response to a question. It does no one any good if a story is inaccurate or incomplete or if the information is misunderstood.”

Government Executive participated in the survey.