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Dan Way   

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is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.

http://www.carolinajournal.com/

 


Groups Keeping Tabs on Tight-Lipped Government PR Officials

By Dan Way Associate Editor

RALEIGH A national government watchdog group is collecting examples of government employees who are responsible for providing public information but in fact impede the free flow of information to journalists. Media executives in North Carolina say the problem is pervasive here, especially in state government. “We hear about this all the time, and it’s happening all over the country at all different levels,” from local to federal governments, said Lynn Walsh, a television news producer in San Diego and president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists. “There are so many journalists out there who are really trying to get information so they can make their stories better, make them more accurate, make them better for the community, and they’re being blocked for various reasons” by government communications departments, Walsh said. SPJ, an organization that promotes ethics in journalism and open government, is collaborating on a project called #AccessDenied with MuckRock, another government watchdog group. MuckRock bills itself as “a news site for journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens to request, analyze, and share government documents, making politics more transparent, and democracies more informed,” while helping journalists with public records requests and investigative stories. Walsh said there is a trend among government agencies to force reporters to go through a public information officer before speaking to other employees, which tends to encourage staff to be less forthright with journalists. Sometimes the PIO demands to sit in on interviews or requires a list of questions in advance of an interview. “The increasing trend of pushing off hard questions or even basic queries to press offices and canned statements may make public officials’ lives easier in the short term, but it robs them of the chance of truly engaging with their constituents, and undermines public accountability and trust,” MuckRock founder Michael Morisy said in announcing the launch of #AccessDenied. Walsh said an initial survey of reporters and PIOs is now being completed, and every indication is that access has become a substantial problem. She hopes examples of abuses can be put on a national digital map to show where the cases are and at what levels of government. Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality who handles press inquiries for that agency, is president of the North Carolina Association of Government Information Officers. She said that organization is mostly a professional career development endeavor and declined to discuss the SPJ project. She said she did not feel comfortable dealing with the political nature of the subject since her organization is not political. “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that there are more barriers in our ability to get to the stakeholders these days,” said Jim Lawitz, editorial vice president for Davidson, N.C.- based Civitas Media, which owns more than 100 publications in 12 states. Not long ago, journalists typically could walk into a government office and sit down for daily conversations or briefings unfettered by middle men. “That’s a bygone era,” Lawitz said. “It goes part and parcel with how much more difficult our job is. The waters have been muddied regarding journalism, and I think that government officials in some ways use this as a way of covering their own back ends because they don’t want to get in trouble with their bosses.” Lawitz and Lockwood Phillips, longtime general manager and publisher of the Carteret County NewsTimes, and former president of the National Newspaper Association, agree that the access problem is infrequent in smaller communities, where government officials are more familiar with local reporters. “But, yes, at the state level it is a headache. … We quite often just automatically anticipate they want to know what the questions are so we email the questions to them” in advance, Phillips said. “But obviously there’s a delay so they can look at the questions and figure the best way to answer them without necessarily answering, or answering it in a fashion that somehow influences the conclusion, if you will. I don’t want to say spin it, but, yeah, they spin it,” Phillips said. He doesn’t blame the PIOs. In today’s politically charged environment, “The decision makers, the policymakers, the point-of-responsibility people are looking for plausible deniability in some fashion,” Phillips said. “They want to control the message. There is nothing helpful” for taxpayers and voters as a result. Controlling the message is partly linked to the rise of social media, he said. “The public officials are frightened that they will lose control of the story” if it goes viral on the Internet, Phillips said. Sometimes agency bosses distrust the media due to past experiences. “Part of it is self-inflicted, some of it is not,” Phillips said. While he maintains good contacts with some state agencies, he said he can “never get an opportunity to talk to the attorney general.” Shortly after Attorney General Roy Cooper took office, Phillips wanted to interview him for a positive story, but was unable to. “He just actually refuses to talk to the public. It’s a fascinating thing.” “I don’t recall any recent interview requests from that media outlet,” said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper. “Reporters frequently tell me that they find us to be among the most responsive government agencies, the attorney general has done hundreds of media interviews during his tenure, and we often make other experts with the department available to the media on general topics,” Talley said. “The Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers affect media contacts with our office more so than any protocol, for example, limiting our ability to comment on or do interviews about pending legal matters or things that may become litigation involving the state,” Talley said. CJ