By: Kathryn Foxhall
Over about the last 20 years, agencies—public and private—have brought on a surge of policies blocking reporters from communicating with staff unless they are tracked and/or monitored by public information officers: the public relations controllers.
On a historic basis, the widespread use of these barriers is new and it’s radical. On the federal level, at least, most agencies prior to the last two administrations did not do this.
It’s censorship that’s now a cultural norm. It comes from the same motivations and has the same type impact as censorship everywhere. It’s nearly ubiquitous in Washington, but from reports it’s happening in many other areas as well.
As years have passed with little push back from journalists, agencies have begun to block requested interviews altogether, if they so wish.
What journalists don’t want to face is that the restraints are effective, like censorship in other countries, despite reporters’ occasional triumphs. With millions of people blocked from talking to reporters at all or at least not without the public information “guards” tracking and monitoring them, journalists are losing perspectives and important stories regularly.
In one example out of thousands, the New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.
Why? Who knows? In some agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), of which CMS is a part, no contact is allowed between source and reporter without at least two layers of clearance, ending up at the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, way up the political ladder.
But HHS agencies are at the absolute center of ICD-10 work. They have staff people who have lived and breathed ICD-10 for years. As always, chances are overwhelming the story would be much better informed if staff could talk and particularly if they could talk without the guards. What internal discussion is shaping this system? What interest group(s) is HHS talking to? Are the most important things being carefully not mentioned?
If journalists weren’t inured to the censorship, they would wonder: What’s the bigger story here, the ICD-10 or a federal agency effectively telling the public to jump in a lake?
Journalists like to think they overcome all.
But inevitably, there are frequent times when muzzled staff experts look on and think this: If reporters only knew about the other document, about how things work, about how skewed this is, or that this press conference is political malarkey.
It’s all in stark contrast to previous times—going back as far as anyone knows—when reporters walked agencies’ halls, called staff at will, often talked to them confidentially, and in a unique, critically needed graduate school, got perspective and education fluidly.
At least for specialized reporters, journalists’ direct contact with staff people in many federal agencies is probably down by more than 90 percent. With the PR office guards and the permission-to-speak process, it’s difficult for reporters to chat and to build any kind of trust.
With the enforced silence, reporters undoubtedly miss some fundamentals. The question is whether some of the thus manipulated news does more harm than good.
In the first years after AIDS was identified, a reporter was on the phone one day with a well-placed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expert. One would think with a fatal epidemic exploding, people could be urgently honest with each other. Not so. The political administration wanted to cut programs and the reporter was asking about proposed user fees for lab tests.
The CDC expert recited the official story for 30 minutes, saying everything was fine. But this was before CDC clamped down with PR office censorship. Typical of that time, no one knew the reporter and source person were speaking. So the reporter asked, “Doctor, is there something you could tell me if your name weren’t attached to it?”
The expert exploded and it was like a light switched on in a dark cave. He explained why people were going to die and how it related to AIDS. He explained how the lab test network worked nationally, which was public information, but the reporter had no time to ferret it out. Congress did not understand it, either.
Had that expert been tracked by the PR office, like today, he would have stuck to the politically safe story–which would have been completely accurate and completely misleading and muddling for the reporter’s public health professional audience.
That article would have been the moral equivalent of throwing barriers in front of first responders. And the reporter would have never known it.
Sabotage by Logistics
As the controls have become steadily more aggressive, agencies have locked journalists into one avenue—this one set of a few public information officers whom they must ask for any interview or for other information. That’s real power over reporters.
Journalists must do permission-seeking for every two-minute contact. That alone would sabotage any enterprise. Then, because agencies have only a few public information officers, they become a tiny bottleneck between all reporters and the thousands of people they should be talking to, for the sake of the understanding that drives the nation’s capabilities.
There are often days of delays. PR offices want the questions in advance. They often want them in an email. Public information officers must clear conversations with the political layer of government. The PR offices often don’t get back to reporters, sometimes because of lack of time and sometimes because some unknown person doesn’t want the contact to happen.
If the agency does grant permission to speak, monitors usually listen in. During the interview the PIO may limit what may be discussed and may actually stop the source person before he or she can say something.
Living to Interview Another Day
Last year a reporter asked about important rules for ClinicalTrials.gov, the registry for medical studies, ironically meant to make medical research more transparent. Five years after Congress had called for them, the rules had not come out.
The Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health just said no. No one would talk about it.
And they got offended when the reporter persisted.
Note the control here: Reporters must go back to the same people for permission to speak to someone for a future story. So if they know what is good for their paycheck, they take what little the agencies give them—toxic to public understanding though it may be—and live to interview another day.
Such power can’t exist and go unused: In a 2013 survey of public information officers, sponsored in part by the National Association of Government Communicators and conducted by Dr. Carolyn S. Carlson, assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University, 40 percent of PIOs admitted they had blocked certain reporters because of “problems” they had with their previous stories. Three years ago an HHS PIO informed a room full of reporters he had told his whole staff to ignore a certain reporter.
In another survey by Carlson released this March and sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, more than half of local reporters from across the country said they had been prohibited by PIOs from interviewing agency employees at least some of the time and 10 percent said most of the time (see chart A).
Stories Never Gotten
The nation lives with the consequences of officially blocked reporting. In January a senior Environmental Protection Agency official was sentenced for, among other things, fooling the agency into thinking—incredibly—he was on assignment for the CIA when he was away doing whatever, many times over 13 years. The press didn’t break that story. (Obviously, reporters could not have unguarded chats with the executive assistant who suspected something.) The larger question is whether reporters could have ever broken that story with the agency’s guards on them. Or whether the press would know if large chunks of any agency weren’t functioning.
Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press, says, “Nonofficial news sources are critical to a free press and critical to holding a government accountable. Otherwise you are just going to hear from the official sources and then the public will only know what the government wants them to know.”
In the most recent survey of local reporters, more than three-quarters said the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies impose on reporting (see chart B). About 85 percent of reporters covering federal agencies said the same thing in a 2012 Carlson survey.
So is it good journalism not to fight these controls or not to report them to the public whenever they occur?
Certainly, there is no inherent limit to the seriousness of what may be hidden.
Much of medical research ethics policies today flow from the public reaction in 1972 when the nation discovered the U.S. Public Health Service had experimented on 399 African American men for 40 years by leaving them untreated for syphilis and not telling them what was happening.
The only thing that finally brought the Tuskegee experiment to an end was the totally unauthorized conversations of an insider—in that case a former CDC employee—with an Associated Press reporter.
But the HHS agencies have learned their lesson. Today, the Office of Human Research Protections is dealing with one of the most prominent medical research ethics issues in years, involving issues on how to inform parents about research on newborns. And it has its PR office guard and it’s not letting reporters talk to anyone.
Free Speech Means Unauthorized Contacts
To save our lives and our integrity, the press needs gushing rivers of unauthorized communications, confidential conversations, discussions the bosses would never, ever approve of and talks with as many of the “wrong” people as possible.
Arlington cemetery gravediggers knew about the jumbled graves for years before the story broke. Janitors knew about the child abuse at Penn State for years. If only a janitor had found himself sitting next to a reporter at a Penn State football game and some level of trust had developed.
The last thing anybody should want is for any employee to be warned to never talk to the press, or never to talk without guards.
Indeed, possibly the most serious facet of the policies is the inadvertent totality of the repression. The restrictions intimidate speech at thousands of points, day in and day out. Whatever their intent, authorities themselves can’t have an inkling of the many exchanges they squelch, the ideas that don’t get conveyed or the evils don’t become apparent (see chart B).
No More Hazardous Source
Agency officials argue they must monitor contacts with reporters because what staff people tell reporters might be wrong.
That’s absolutely true: people speaking freely may be wrong about what they say. They may have their own agenda. Fundamental to reporting is constant skepticism and confirmation of everything.
But there is no more hazardous information source than the official story. It’s usually not the whole story and it’s frequently politically-induced or self-promoting for the agency or the leaders.
With authorities’ tracking of all contacts, journalists are prevented from doing simple due diligence: finding out if the story is different when people don’t have surveillance on them.
Free speech, with its capability of bringing things to light, is the great inducer of accuracy.
Meantime, it’s interesting to note, agency leaders and staff are free to speak without surveillance to lobbyists, special interest groups, people with money and contacts who can give them higher paying jobs when they leave government.
Spreading the Norm of Silence
PR office censorship is now prevalent in many areas of the country. Local and state governments, businesses, schools, hospitals, and even some universities have the silence policies. Millions of people, in thousands of workplaces of varying moral caliber, are told, in essence, to shut up.
A Utah newspaper editor tells of a public information officer not only blocking her reporters, but also asking she give her agency a list of stories the newspaper is working on. The mayor and the PIO also asked she fire a reporter they objected to and hire someone who—it later turned out—worked on a branding campaign for the city in her other job.
Education reporters from several states just laughed at the question, indicating they were being stopped at every turn. Some school districts produce policies saying only the top people in the schools can talk to the press. Another survey by Carlson, this one of education reporters, found that 6 in 10 think the controls over who they talk to amount to government censorship (see chart C).
So the nation has all this history of institutions that protected child abusers for years and all the incidents of teachers and others changing test scores. And now we have schools telling employees to never talk to a reporter.
No one should have to live in a community where staffs in government, police, schools or hospitals are afraid to get to know reporters or tip them off about anything.
Whither Defenders of Free Speech?
Whatever societal forces these restrictions are connected to, they are now journalists’ problem. No one is likely to help unless news professionals speak up. The people in power are delighted to have a rationale for information control. The public doesn’t understand because journalists don’t explain it.
The frequent response from news professionals on why they aren’t fighting the restrictions is that reporters in their organizations are so good it doesn’t affect their stories. Or that it’s always been reporters’ jobs to be ingenious or persistent enough to get the real story.
Reality is that news outlets often do reporting under these restraints, as authorities have commanded, and the journalists never know what people would otherwise tell them. And the big investigations that get the unsterilized story are few and far between.
With all those people gagged, is it good journalism to be that confident stories aren’t manipulated? To not worry about all those blocked or guarded conversations that might have otherwise blown the story out of the water? Should journalists be taking that risk?
Kathryn Foxhall is a healthcare journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area. She is an active proponent against censorship through PR offices, working on the issue through the National Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The recent surveys on PIO controls on local and education reporters, along with statements from the news conference on them, are on the SPJ site (spj.org).