If the press had "been there" in agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the pre-pandemic years, the chances are excellent that not nearly as many people would have died. Despite some impressive stories, reporters had no routine access to facilities, and employees were banned from speaking to journalists without oversight through public information officers (PIO). Officials decided behind closed doors which reporters could speak to certain employees and what they could discuss. Often, reporters were not allowed to talk to anyone at all. All those controls continue, unabated and invisible to the public today.
As ably described in this issue of Editor and Publisher, there has been a surge over the last two to three decades of agencies, offices and businesses prohibiting staff (or other people they have power over) from freely communicating with journalists. In many cases, bans on physical access to facilities have come along with other restraints in the name of security. We need to stand back to realize this is corruption, and with the challenges facing humanity, it is an apocalyptical moral issue for journalists.
My certainty that this lack of access only exacerbated the pandemic is informed by time spent covering those agencies before this intense censorship. When a reporter can call staff without the bosses' minders, there is — always, every day, with no doubt — the ability to speak candidly and discover much more of the story. Just think of what recent decades would’ve been like had insiders been intimidated about confidential conversations — denying us critical facts on public policies, why budgets are adequate or not, whether specific programs are excelling or suffering, whether mistakes were made or corruption exists.
Currently, the nation is trying to determine the origins of SAR-CoV-2, while many top experts in the world sit in the CDC or other agencies, virtually gagged and prevented from speaking with the press. These federal agencies are just a few examples. Local news editors have told me that ‘PIO’ is a bad word, and they constantly deal with these barriers. One editor said this is the end of local journalism and felt the news industry has been asleep on this issue.
Why aren't journalists revolting against these restrictions or even telling the public about them? For one thing, our long-time work ethic says there will always be people trying to stop you, but good reporters get the story anyway. Also, psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggested we have an inherent human bias, that "what you see is all there is." So journalists have to push through that bias to be curious and resolved. Then, there is the unkind fact that journalists need the insiders' insight and information. We need input from agencies, offices and their inhabitants.
When the FDA puts out a release saying it's banning most flavored vaping products, the press will summarize it. But, without access to the agency or the people working on that issue, there is much we cannot know nor understand.
Political communication author Victor Pickard has written about journalists having "internalized some of the commercial values that media owners hold most dear, like relying on inexpensive official sources as the credible news source." Increasingly, journalists agree to work through a source's PIO, despite knowing that the conversations may be censored, to get access to the source.
Of course, the best journalists manage to get their stories well beyond "handouts" from the agencies and organizations. But some days feel like we're "fishing over 25-foot-high walls."
The bad news for journalists trying to combat this culture of censorship and silence is that the problem is basically in our laps. Unfortunately, we have few allies and no shortage of those who’d like to prevent us from getting and telling important stories.
Sources from small-town police chiefs to non-profit organizations, from CEOs of corporations to the president of the United States, wield powerful and tight control over information. We must be relentless in our quest for access and fight against censorship tools, such as non-disclosure agreements. We should also inform the public about the forces acting against us. We should talk about censorship. We should investigate it and editorialize about it.
Kathryn Foxhall has over 30 years of experience writing about health and health policy. She recently received the Wells Key award from the Society of Professional Journalists for work against controls on reporters through public information offices. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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