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 And soon thereafter it rescinded the punishment, according to the paper.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.