Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Washington Meeting Will Focus in Part on PR Office Censorship

An October 3 session at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., will focus in part on the PR Office Censorship issue.

The meeting is an offshoot of the recent Columbia Journalism Review investigation into the state of the Obama Administration’s promise to create an open government (see below).

The moderator will be Seth Borenstein, national science reporter for the Associated Press. And speakers will include Curtis Brainard, the author of the CJR investigative piece. Others on the panel are Joseph Davis, Society of Environmental Journalists; Felice Freyer, Association of Health Care Journalists; Darren Samuelsohn, Politico’s senior energy and environment reporter; and Clothilde Le Coz, Reporters Without Borders.

Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy have been invited.

A reception will follow.

Monday, September 26, 2011

HHS Puts It in Writing: Staff Members and Reporters Are Forbidden to Speak without Reporting to the Authorities

The Department of Health and Human Services last week released a media policy which makes it official that staff members and reporters are forbidden to speak to each other without reporting to public information officers and supervisors.
Although over the last 10-20 years HHS and many of its agencies have prohibited staff members not to speak to reporters without PIO oversight, this is apparently the first time in history the agency has put it in writing.
The policy says, “In order to make certain we provide the media the best possible service and information in a timely fashion, it is important that the relevant agency public affairs office be notified of all media calls/contacts that employees receive about their HHS work.”

It further says, “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.”

Seeming to endorse agencies’ current practices of sometimes dictating who reporters may or may not talk to, the document states, “In response to media interview requests, an agency public affairs office should identify the most knowledgeable spokesperson(s) who can provide the requested information.”

The policy does state, “In general, reporters, including bloggers, should have access to HHS employees they seek to interview.” One issue with that statement is that “in general” could allow agencies to divert reporters’ requests very often, since no one can track how frequently that occurs.

On another issue the policy says, “Media interviews should be on-the-record and attributable to the person speaking to the media representative, unless an alternate attribution arrangement is mutually agreed upon in advance.”  The Department is thus forbidding its thousands of employees to ever go “off-the-record” when talking to reporters, something which frequently allows journalists to get legitimate, verifiable information that will not come out through official channels.

HHS says, “Agency public affairs officers should facilitate interviews and work to meet reporters’ deadlines.” Although the word “facilitate” is not defined, in the past PIOs have listened in on conversations and sometimes dictated what may or may not be discussed.

The document also says that at meetings where HHS staff members make presentations, “Interviews or media questions that are beyond the scope of the study or specific work should be referred to their agency public affairs office for appropriate follow up.” Particularly in light of the restrictions in recent years, reporters sometimes talk to staff members at meetings to get away from the PIO “guards” and get some balance to the official view. Now that is prohibited.

The Association of Health Care Journalists, which has had many discussions with HHS about the restrictions, notes, “The guidelines do not state whether a media representative must or should listen in on interviews with HHS employees. They also do not address whether reporters from large and small media outlets should be treated equally.”

AHCJ has begun quarterly conversions with HHS public affairs officers on the issues. The association’s article says, “Asked whether reporters would ever be allowed to contact and interview federal employees on their own, Sorian said that HHS has no plans to change the policy requiring interview requests to be cleared by a public affairs office.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

CJR Looks at Agencies' Press Restrictions

Curtis Brainard, writing in the Columbia Review of Journalism, has done a great article on information control in federal agencies, looking at PR Office Censorship among other things.
It will hopefully open up discussion on why we have developed these restrictions on the press.
A couple of things I would expand on.
Brainard recounts, for example, how the EPA press secretary scolded reporters for questioning transparency policies and threatened to break off discussions with the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Public information officers pull these stunts because they can. The policies of forcing reporters to get PIOs’ permission to speak to anyone makes us dependent on PIOs.
It’s the inevitably corrosive power of censorship. Under normal conditions reporters would ignore PIOs posturing and call a good source person in the agency to find out what was happening. Then the agency could confirm or not, as it wished.
The CRJ article also tells how journalist Felice Freyer tried repeatedly to get FDA to respond to her breaking story on doctors’ use of IUDs that were not approved by the agency. FDA’s only answer was that the agency was looking into it. But four days later FDA posted an update on its website referring to the incident, warning consumers, and making it plain that the agency could have discussed the issue with the reporter if it wished.
I stress that far from being one incident, this is typical of the culture of FDA’s interactions with reporters. The PIOs just say no to many reporters’ requests to speak with staff members, possibly the majority of the requests.
For an article going to over 100,000 pharmacists, I asked to talk to a staff member who had spoken at a meeting about counterfeit drugs. The PIO said the staff member didn’t have anything else to say. After years of work on the subject.
Another time I asked to talk to an FDA expert about pharmaceuticals for children for tens of thousands of pediatricians. After numerous days of emails, an officer told me FDA didn’t need to talk to me because I had already talked to someone at another agency.
More recently I asked FDA if there would be a comment period for the upcoming biosimilars policy. The PIO gave me the URL for a 12-page Federal Register document. If I could have found something in the document that seemed to apply, I would have still needed confirmation from people working on the biosimilars issue.
The question is whether an agency which does not talk to the press unless it wishes to has any accountability to the public.

Monday, September 5, 2011

When You Don't Go Through The Censors

Media commentator Jim Romenesko covers the controversy surrounding the University of Kentucky athletic department’s action taken because a student journalist did not go through the media relations department. The department apparently took the student’s media pass away.  Associated Press Managing Editors and Associated Press Sports Editors both wrote letters to call it censorship.

Poor student journalists. Being a few years out of tenth grade civics, they may be forgiven for thinking that free speech and free press don’t mean having to ask for authorities for permission to speak.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reporters Will Report As Suggested. Or Else.

Earlier this year a federal public information officer told a room full of journalists that a reporter had published something the PIO had said which he had thought was “off the record.” So, the PIO said, adamantly, he decided he would no longer respond to the reporter’s contacts. He also told his staff not to respond.

The PIO, inadvertently, recognized the elephant in the room with the prohibitions against reporters and staff speaking to each other without going through the public information office. Those restrictions then become a choke point that is a powerful tool for controlling reporting and can be used however the agency wishes. The public and press need never know what manipulation is happening and why.
That's something reporters admit to each other sometimes. Last year I helped collect examples of PIOs controlling, delaying or manipulating conversations. The majority of reporters who gave examples, asked (pleaded in some cases) for anonymity. That’s because if they want to do any future reporting on that entity (agency, hospital, etc.) they must ask the same office for permission to talk to anyone.

Is it even credible the agency will never use that control to protect itself from negative reporting? Or that the control will never be used for political manipulation?

(Note: For now I’m setting a policy of not identifying public information officers in this blog, if it doesn’t seem necessary. That is because the responsibility for the censorship of prohibiting all reporting unless it’s under the PIO surveillance rests squarely with agencies’ leadership. The PIOs are mandated to do it.)