Reprint: A Reporter's Bill Of Rights

July 30, 2008

[The following column is reprinted with permission from the Environment Writer newsletter, then published by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center, in its April/May 2001 issue. It was written as a "Point/Source" perspective column by Joseph A. Davis.]

Agency press offices. You can't live with them, and you can't live without them.

There has been passionate discussion lately about the performance of various federal agency press offices that are key to the environmental beat. EW was going to do a long investigative expose documenting the problem and naming names, but procrastinated for months ... years even. Then the administration changed. The villains evaporated.

That presents a chance to write a positive column — on how agencies should do the press-office job. And it presents a new administration with a chance to prove how much better it is than the old one.

Now here, in telegraphic "Bill of Rights" form, are some of the main things reporters ought to be able to expect from an agency press office:

  1. Returned phone calls. Normally within no more than a couple of hours, and certainly by the end of the same day. Even faster is even better.
  2. Prompt notice of news. Most competent agencies today have e-mail press lists, and e-mail transmission is almost instantaneous. That allows advisories and alerts to work well, even if the advisory comes only a few hours before an event. Press releases about an event can be e-mailed or put on the Web within minutes after an event or press conference.
  3. Informed press officers. If a press officer is assigned responsibility for a certain subject area or realm within an agency, he or she should know with certainty the important facts about important stories.
  4. Names and phone numbers. We still need to talk to humans and ask questions. Every press release should have the name and phone of at least one authoritative or quotable contact. Agency Web sites should give names and phones of press officers.
  5. Access to agency people. The sources who know the most or speak with most authority are often the decision-makers and program people in the bowels of an agency, not the press officers themselves. The job of the press office is to put reporters directly in touch with agency people, not to shelter or censor them.
  6. Fair and equal treatment of media. OK, let's be realistic. Given two "While you were out" slips from two reporters, a press officer will probably return the call from The New York Times before the one from The Podunk Bugle. But both calls should get returned promptly. Day-ahead leaks to The Washington Post are unfair and manipulative.
  7. Access to information. In the old days, this meant paper, but in today's electronic environment, this should be easier and better. The press office's job is to help reporters find and get information relevant to their stories. This often means "documents" like reports, Federal Register notices, policies, studies, memos, etc. Even better is when press offices offer backgrounders with key facts and context.
  8. A good Web site. An effective agency Web site can help with most of the above. It can make an agency, its staff, and its workings transparent and accessible not only to reporters, but to the public-at-large, which is the media's ultimate audience.
  9. Accuracy. Goes without saying but needs to be said.
  10. Honesty. Ditto.