Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On Not Trusting the Official Story

Below is the presentation I made on PR Office Censorship to a panel session at the National Association Communicators Annual meeting.

I want to first thank NAGC for having this important and courageous panel.

The first thing I want to say is journalists fighting these restrictions don’t want to be in opposition to PAOs. 

--Because we need the tremendous help you give us.

--Because many of the agencies are amazing, unsung heroes and deserve much more recognition.

--Because I feel journalists are more responsible than PAOs for the unconscionable restrictions we are under.

--And because we want your help in resisting the situation, because we all live in this country.


About 20 years ago, at the federal level, some agencies started prohibiting staff from talking to reporters without going through the public information office. Over time the restrictions have become more widespread and aggressive. 

Built on top of that requirement are myriad constraints on newsgathering. Death by delay; monitoring conversations; refusals to allow reporters to speak to source people they have identified or to speak to anyone at all; etc.

This is the bottom line on why this is so destructive: ROUTINELY staff people tell us lots of solid, really important stuff when we talk to them away from official oversight, things that will not out come through the official avenues.

But when people speak when they are being tracked at the behest of the leadership, mostly they tell the official story. And that’s tragic. The official story is just one piece.
For some historical incidents:

Much of medical ethics today flows from 1972 when an “insider,” --a former federal employee-- had totally unauthorized conversations with an AP reporter about something he had known for years: the Public Health Service had been following the progress of syphilis for 40 years in 399 African American men without informing or treating them. The story turned the research world on its head.

And when jumbled graves were discovered at Arlington, gravediggers had known for years. 

When the Penn State sex abuse scandal broke, janitors had known for years. 

FDA staff members worried about compounding pharmacies long before people had fungus injected into their spines.

Gushing Rivers

There is always much that lies beneath. The press critically needs gushing rivers of unauthorized communications, confidential conversations, discussions the bosses would never, ever approve of, communications the leaders nor anyone else know about.
We need to talk to as many of the “wrong” people as we can cram into the day.

Without those communications, happening fluidly, reporters are perniciously naïve.

And yes, huge parts of those communications are going to be absolute hogwash. 

That’s why reporters need to use heavy skepticism and confirmation of everything.

Official Story

On the other hand, official information, or communication from people speaking under official control, is at least equally as risky.

There is no greater lesson from history than the fact it is massively irresponsible to just trust the official story. For journalists, one of the most unethical things we can do is to just trust.

That’s why we need to talk to people away from official controls.

Scott McClellan, spokesman for President Bush, said the country went to war in an atmosphere of the administration’s “spin, stonewalling, hedging, evasion, denial, noncommunication and deceit by omission.”

Look at the culture we’ve built in 20 years:

Millions of people prohibited from communicating with each other without reporting to the authorities. Thousands of workplaces and thousands of managers with the power to silence people. A whole culture inside agencies that “knows” it should aggressively control and suppress information-gathering. 

In recent times, CDC forbade a reporter’s interview with a key expert on one of the largest tuberculosis outbreaks in 20 years; HHS stopped a New York Times reporter from speaking with a staff psychologist about his allegations of massive child abuse on a Native American reservation; FDA stopped me from talking to a counterfeit drug expert because she “didn’t have anything else to say.” 

Doesn’t this sound like a country very different from the United States? 

All these incidents hide something from the public, because it’s unusual for a reporter to interview someone close to an issue and not get some kind of perspective.

Of course, the agencies had reasons. Someone hiding my car from me would have reasons. All the information belongs to the public.


 Censorship stops and manipulates the public’s understanding. It’s one of the most debilitating and corrupting things that can happen to a society.
Please think about the gravity of this. Because none of us knows what is silenced or skewed in all these agencies. And your loved one will get a drug, or will go into a hospital in situation, where staff has been quiet about something --- for years.

Thank you.

We would seriously like your suggestions on harmonizing both professions’ work with the First Amendment.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

New SPJ Article: PIOs as Censors

Linda Petersen and I write in a new article in Quill,  “Whether they like it or not, PIOs serve as censors for their bosses. Often staff members know a lot they won’t say when PIOs are tracking—at the leadership’s behest—who is talking to which reporter.”

Quill is the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. Petersen chairs the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee.
The article notes that reporters used to call up staff people in agencies and elsewhere and staff would give them what they needed.
“Not so anymore. From the largest federal department to the smallest city, everyone is trying to manage the media through the PIOs,” the piece points out.
It advises reporters, among other tactics, to, “Work hard to skirt the monitors.”
The article also urges reporters, “Investigate it. When did it start in your community? Did anyone have any ethical qualms about controlling information? Do they teach this at conferences for local officials?”
The September-October issue with the article, “PIO – Friend or Foe,” should be going up on the SPJ site soon.

From HHS: Serious Censorship on Serious Issues

On child abuse: The New York Times reported in July that a federal health services psychologist had told his superiors that child abuse on a North Dakota reservation was rampant and being ignored.
Portions of his emails about the situation had appeared in the New York Times.
Soon thereafter the Department of Health and Human Services leveled punishment against the psychologist. And soon thereafter it rescinded the punishment, according to the paper.
But in the midst of it all, HHS refused to allow the psychologist to talk to the New York Times reporter.
That HHS prohibition against two people talking to each other came just over two weeks after the investigative report headed by Louis Freeh on child abuse at Penn State hit the news saying that powerful leaders had concealed critical facts in that case.

Tuberculosis outbreak: Also in July, a public information officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forbade reporter Stacey Singer of the Palm Beach Post to speak to experts at that agency who had worked on a tuberculosis outbreak in Florida.
Singer had already identified staff involved in the work.
The reason given for prohibiting the communication was that “state/local health officials have the lead in responding to this situation.”
A letter from CDC to local officials that Singer obtained said the outbreak was one of the most extensive that the agency had been invited to assist with in about 20 years.

Monday, March 19, 2012

SPJ Survey: Many Journalists Say Federal Agencies' Interference with Reporting Is Censorship

A survey sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists has found that 7 of 10 journalists who cover federal agencies consider government controls over who they interview a form of censorship.

Three-quarters of the 146 reporters who answered the survey said they have to get approval from a public affairs official before interviewing an agency employee.
About 85 percent of respondents agreed that, “The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

The entire survey is on the SPJ’s site.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

NOAA Policy Allows Much More Openness Than Other Agencies

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has adopted a relatively open policy on scientists speaking to journalists, in sharp contrast to a number of other federal agencies.
In a questions-and-answers document on its new scientific integrity policy NOAA lists the question, “May I take phone calls from the media and give interviews?”The agency’s answer is, “Yes. There are no exceptions here.”
The document also says scientists are not required to do anything when asked by a reporter to give an interview, indicating that notification of the public relations office is not mandated.
It further says scientists are allowed to give their personal opinions in interviews, as long as they make clear they are not expressing the opinion of NOAA or the administration.
According to the actual NOAA scientific integrity policy statement, the policy covers all employees who deal with, or manage or communicate about science or use it for policy decisions, as well as contractors who do those things.
The policy is starkly different from that of the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, which states, “When approached by a reporter, HHS employees should work with their immediate supervisor and coordinate with the appropriate public affairs office/personnel in their agency.”
In addition to prohibiting journalists and staff members from speaking to each other without reporting to authorities, the HHS policy in practice limits information-gathering in a number of ways. The permission-seeking requirement for each contact inevitably slows the process. Public relations staff members monitor conversations by listening in on them. Many conversations never happen because they are excessively delayed or the agency prevents the contact in one way or another, sometimes blatantly denying contact between reporter and expert.
A number of other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have similar practices, according to reporters who cover them.
In an interview on NOAA’s scientific integrity statement, Justin Kenney, the agency’s director of communications and external affairs, said his philosophy is, “more is better,” and that NOAA should take every opportunity to talk about its science to reporters.
He added that the taxpayers pay for the work and the agency wants people to know about it.
Kenney confirmed that employees are not required to tell the public affairs office about conversations.
He said there has been no “push back” from other federal agencies about the level of openness of NOAA’s policy.
He did say there might be instances, such as when there is pending litigation, when NOAA would not want to comment.
According to the Scientific American “Observations” blog, NOAA’s administrator Jane Lubchenco said at a press conference in December that the policy “firmly supports our scientists and their scientific activities, protects the use of scientific findings and thus advances the public trust in NOAA science.”
It should be noted there is ample language in the NOAA Q-and-A document for supervisors who are so inclined to pressure staff to report conversations. The document says staff members not required to give interviews and they can always refer a call to public affairs. It also says that although staff members are not required to report conversations, “However, good practice suggests you should notify your public affairs officer and/or the head of your operating unit prior to or just after you give an interview.”
That’s because, the document says, managers, like other people, would not want to be surprised about detailed questions about their work.
Nevertheless, the NOAA policy allows the possibility of staff members and journalists speaking to each other fluidly, without reporting to the authorities, and confidentially if necessary.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CDC Refuses Reporter Permission to Speak to Experts

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention denied me permission to speak to any expert on male circumcision over a five-week period in October and November during which I made more than 20 requests.
I’m a freelance reporter and my audience was tens of thousands of physicians.
The CDC website indicates the agency has been working on the circumcision recommendations for well over two years.
As many journalists know, a number of federal agencies force reporters to contact the agencies’ public information offices before speaking to agency staff.
And they often use that as a barrier to stop or limit news gathering.

One question for reporters is whether our tenacity is overcoming these restrictions, as we may like to think, or whether the agencies actually speak when and if they wish.

Circumcision recommendations are doubtlessly a difficult issue. Among other things, impressive studies from Africa have indicated the intervention is effective in reducing HIV transmission. On the other hand, there is significant opposition to the procedure in this country.

And it is always possible, in issues of potential controversy, for the political layers of government to be concerned about what is said.

Nevertheless, the questions are why an agency in the United States government would prohibit a reporter from speaking to an expert? Why can’t the public know how the discussion on this topic is being carried out and what the major issues are in a process that has continued for some time? Do our audiences deserve information from an interview with one of the several key experts? Or should the public be relegated to public information staff, leaving question of how the information is constrained as it goes through the PIO? Perhaps most importantly, why are people prohibited from speaking to each other in any circumstance and why is the press restricted to being tracked, and often stopped, by the agencies’ public relations staff?
In my long quest for an interview, I sent initial emails directly to the circumcision experts and, at least in one case, the email was forwarded to a public information officer.  
In response to my repeated requests, at various points a PIO gave me some basic information, said I could quote the information he had given me, said he would answer my questions, said the CDC scientists were too busy, said it was premature to do an interview about the guidelines, said he was providing all the information the agency has at this point, and said he would put me on the list for receiving the recommendations.
Meanwhile, I had indicated I was not seeking information about what the final recommendations would be.
Ultimately, another communications officer called and offered me an embargoed interview to be done shortly before the recommendations are to come out, at whatever point that is. I said that would be good, but I still wanted an interview with an expert now. She said the experts can’t talk about this.
After numerous contacts, I emailed Kevin Fenton, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, with questions including:
---Are the subject matter experts prohibited from speaking to the press on this topic?

---Why can't my audience get an update on the status of the recommendations and the process from a subject matter expert?

---I've been told it's premature to talk about the issue. How can anything that is the public's business ever be premature?

---Is every aspect of CDC's work premature if people in the agency decide it is?
---Doesn't the decision of what the public should hear about, and when, properly belong to the public, including the press?

I did not receive answers from Dr. Fenton.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

CJR Coverage and the Webinar of Press Club Meeting on PR Office Censorship, etc.

The Columbia Journalism Review had posted an article with further discussion of the October 3 meeting on press officer interference and other issues (see my coverage, below), as well as some answers from public affairs officials.

It also links to the video of the meeting.