Reporters who cover federal government agencies say they face impediments to getting information to the public because of interference from public affairs officers, according to a new survey from the Society of Professional Journalists.
An online survey of 146 Washington, DC-area reporters in February indicated overwhelming frustration from journalists trying to interview federal employees or get basic information for the public.
Major problems include:
• Pre-approval: Three-quarters of the working journalists reported that they have to get approval from public affairs officers before interviewing agency employees.
• Prohibition: Two-thirds of reporters said agencies outright prohibit reporters from interviewing agency employees some or most of the time.
• Monitoring: About 84 percent said their interviews have been monitored in person or over the phone by government public information officers. “They sit right next to the person I am interviewing and often times jump in to make a comment or interfere with the conversation,” one respondent stated.
• Censorship: Seven out of 10 reporters agreed with the statement, “I consider government agency controls over who I interview a form of censorship.”
About 85 percent of the journalists agreed with the statement, “The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”
Carolyn Carlson, a former SPJ president and lead author of the study, said the results were alarming. “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. Public affairs officers need to facilitate media coverage, not interfere or block it.”
On a good note, about 70 percent of the surveyed journalists said they had a positive relationship with the public information officers with whom they work, and most reported that officers quickly respond to their queries most of the time.
However, overwhelmingly, comments from the surveyed journalists indicated increasing frustration at what they perceive as efforts by agencies to control the message to the public. “PAOs tend to make up information,” stated one respondent. “You can never trust the information they provide. They make our jobs almost impossible and they treat journalists with barely any professionalism.”
Another respondent: “They act as gatekeepers. And they are very rarely completely helpful or forthcoming.”