J-Groups Seek Coalition To Address Press-Office Obstacles

March 21, 2014

Some major U.S. journalism organizations — fed up with federal public affairs offices acting "more like prison guards than gate-keepers" — are teaming up in hopes of lowering PIO barriers to public information.

The latest outbreak of frustration was at a March 19, 2014, panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. It was Sunshine Week. But such events have happened at the Press Club before.

The biggest complaints often center around a new and radical insistence that agency employees must get press office permission before they can talk to reporters (permission often denied), and that press office "minders" must sit in on any interviews.

"It shuts staff people up totally about so many things that are the public's business," said freelancer Kathryn Foxhall, an outspoken opponent of such PIO policies. "It prevents reporters from doing what is only due diligence: finding out if the story looks different, which it frequently does, when people aren't guarded at the behest of the bosses."

"Journalism organizations should band together and go to President Obama and demand change — real change," said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "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."

Cuillier and Foxhall were joined on the panel by Emily Richmond, public editor for the Education Writers Association. She cited this common example: "A reporter in the Midwest has been on the education beat for more than five years and has yet to secure an interview with a central office administrator in which the public information officer is not also present. This includes meeting with the superintendent, who set the access policy."

Panelists agreed that the situation would not get better without organized and creative pushback from journalists. Richmond told this story: "In Connecticut, a school district tried to severely limit a reporter's access to teachers. So she started a book club at the local library and invited teachers to join. It's been a runaway success."

Also on the panel was Prof. Carolyn Carlson of Kennesaw State Univ., who presented two surveys of education writers and other journalists. Most reporters, whether at federal, state, or local levels, said PIO permission was usually required for an interview. Moreover, the survey found, more than half of the reporters said they had been prohibited from interviewing agency employees at least some of the time.

Those results echoed findings Carlson had presented at a similar forum at the NPC back in August 12, 2013. In the earlier report, Carlson had surveyed health care writers. In that survey, 18 percent of journalists said PIOs prohibited them from interviewing agency employees most of the time.

The good news is that most reporters work hard to get around such restrictions. See the WatchDog's "12 Tips for Getting Around the Press Office."

  • The Society of Professional Journalists' Sunshine Week page offers extensive links to the March 19 panel on the PIO information blockade — including transcripts of panelists' remarks.