The Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists invites researchers to look at the development of controls over journalists through media relations departments.
Over the last 20 to 30 years there has been a surge in rules in various entities, public and private, prohibiting employees and others from speaking to reporters without being overseen and controlled by authorities, often public information officers.
The restrictions are serious, for example, in federal agencies and Congressional offices.
SPJ has called the restrictions censorship and authoritarian. The society did seven surveys (2012 – 2016) that showed the controls had become common and often intense on federal, state and local levels, in education and science. Perhaps most chillingly they are used by many police departments. Some of those findings were summarized in a peer-reviewed journal.
We believe this is a fertile field for further research for political communication, public health, journalism, democratic engagement, psychology and others.
Many reporters who have experienced the transition consider it quite harmful. For example, for years before the pandemic, reporters were not usually been able speak to anyone in CDC and FDA without involving the PIO/censors. Often reporters are completely blocked.
Researchers might want to look at how this relates to the “Permanent Campaign.”
Also, note First Amendment Attorney Frank LoMonte did a legal analysis in late 2019 that said the rules are unconstitutional and many courts has said so.
Below is a list of resources.
For further discussion, please contact: Kathryn Foxhall
Resources on “Censorship by PIO”
• PROfficeCensorship: Kathryn Foxhall’s blog has stories and links on the issue.
• SPJ’s website on the issue gives background. It includes the seven surveys SPJ sponsored from 2012-2016.
• In the Washington Post Margaret Sullivan’s column looked at the issue.
• A Columbia Journalism Review article connects the long history of these controls with current circumstances, such as the CDC being terrifyingly absent.A side note: in the article the former CDC media person (1999-2013), Glen Nowak, indicates that during his tenure, in the absence of a public directory it was difficult for journalists to identify who in the agency to talk to. He does not mention that media relations office involvement was forced on reporters, even when we were very versed in who we needed to talk to. Also, for years CDC had a 100-page directory of experts, listed by alphabetical order of expertise, with direct phone numbers, which they gave reporters. We have a 1985 copy.
• Editorial in MedPage Today: “You Think China Has A COVID-19 Censorship Problem? We Aren’t Much Better.”
• Radio interview on “Clearing the Fog,” April 6. “Another Method of Censorship: Media Minders.” Media Minders portion of the show begins at about minute 32.54. The site includes a transcript.
• The Knight Institute at Columbia University released documents on June 9 on CDC’s policies on employee speech. One internal email tells media staff that certain requests from the press for interviews should not even be considered and states: “Just because there are outstanding requests or folks keep getting asked to do a particular interview does not mean it has to be fulfilled.”
• On Oct. 17, 2019, the House Science Space and Technology Committee voted to kill proposed provisions that would have given federal scientists the right to speak to reporters without prior permission from the authorities in their agencies. Science Magazine reported on the mark-up. The vote shows how deep the cultural norm is.
• In its most recent resolution on the issue, SPJ says the constraints are authoritarian and the public has a right to be dubious of statements from organizations in which employees can’t speak without guards.
• On Nov. 6, 2019, SPJ and 28 other journalism and open government groups sent a letter to every member of Congress calling for support of unimpeded communication with journalists for all federal employees.
• Katherine Eban’s 2019 book “Bottle of Lies,” a jaw-dropping look at FDA failure, is on several “best books” lists. When the MedPage editorial (above) came out, Eban said this muzzling of government scientists was the reason it took 10 years to write the book.
• The book “Censored 2020” has an article by Kathryn Foxhall noting, “Everyone in those agencies is thus silenced today. So if there areas the FDA still didn’t clean up or if CDC staff are still playing games with anthrax, we likely won’t find out.”
CDC Tells Media: We Tell You Who to Talk To
Notice on the CDC Website: From FAQ for Reporters
Why is it necessary to go through a press officer when I want to talk with a CDC expert?
Press officers are here to make sure your questions get answered by the best spokesperson for your story, within your deadline. CDC experts are working scientists and may not be available for interviews at all times. A press officer can help you find the best expert or spokesperson to answer your questions.
Media Relations Handbook: Silence All the People Who Know
The last edition listed is 2012.
Media Relations Handbook for Government, Associations, Nonprofits and Elected Officials
From the blurb on Amazon:
By Bradford Fitch, Editor: Jack Holt. The Media Relations Handbook is called "the big blue book" on Capitol Hill.
From chapter nine:
“Reporters decry these closed-mouth operations, as they often result in only the sanitized, organizationally endorsed message being released to the public. And sometimes this penchant for secrecy can lead to dangerous misjudgments and abuses of power. But public policy groups and public figures have a right to determine their own fate and to articulate their own messages
“However, it must be made clear to all staff that they should deal with the media only when authorized by the public relations team. Loss of control over communications can be a disaster for an organization, leading to public controversy and loss of credibility.
“One Capitol Hill chief of staff puts his office policy very succinctly to his non-press staff: “If I ever read your name in the paper, it better be in the obituaries….Or it will be.”
On talking about asking reporters when they first call questions such as “What are you writing about?” and “What information or interviews have you already compiled?” Fitch says, “Most reporters will answer some or all of these questions in the initial call. They understand they need your cooperation to do their job, and the best way to get that is to cooperate with you.”
Position 2085, Kindle Edition.
Summaries of SPJ Surveys and History
SPJ sponsored seven surveys (2012 to 2016) that showed the censorship is pervasive. Seven of 10 federal-level journalists said they consider the government controls over who they interview a form of censorship. Forty percent of federal PIOs admit to blocking specific reporters because of past “problems” with their stories. Seventy-eight percent of political and general assignment reporters at the state and local level say the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers to reporting.
Fifty-six percent of police reporters said rarely or never can they interview police officers without involving a PIO. Asked why they monitor interviews, some police PIOs said things like: “To ensure the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”
Almost half of science writers said they were blocked from interviewing agency employees in a timely manner at least sometimes. Fifty-seven percent said the public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers to reporting.
Coalitions of 38 to over 60 journalism and open government groups have written to the Obama and Trump Administrations opposing the restraints. A coalition met with Obama White House officials in 2015 to oppose the restraints.