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Sunshine Week: Government media policies can be used to control access to information

Last modified: 3/17/2015 11:46:57 PM
When a reporter asks a New Hampshire state employee for an interview, whether that official is able to respond – on the record, at least – depends largely on where they work.

At some agencies, there’s no formal rules that govern who can give out information and which employees are allowed to respond to members of the media. Take the Department of Transportation, for one.

“We have 1,600 employees spread out around the state, more often than not, I steer to those people,” said department spokesman Bill Boynton. “They’re out on front lines.”

So when a reporter wants to call up a mid-level transportation manager, Boynton said, there’s no rule that says that person can’t answer questions on the spot.

There might be a more formal procedure in certain crisis situations, Boynton clarified, or if something was “particularly politically sensitive” – but it’s more or less laissez-faire.

“There’s no official policy in place that all have to go through (the public information office) or all have to be cleared through Bill Boynton,” he said. “Somebody in the public relations biz would probably tell me that’s not very good and it should be more structured, but it works for us.”

But other agencies are considerably more hands-on.

It’s the policy of the Department of Corrections that individual employees “will not convey information to media representatives without first informing the Public Information Officer to ensure that the information pertains to official Department business or activities.”

All media requests must refer calls to the public information office for approval, according to department policy.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, all media requests are routed – in one way or another – through the public information office.

“If you receive a call directly from a member of the media, simply inform the caller that all media calls are handled by our Public Information Office and transfer the person to PIO,” the department says in its instructions.

HHS employees aren’t required to get permission to respond to questions from the media if they’re approached in-person somewhere “speaking on behalf of the Department in your work capacity,” although not all employees understand that.

The department also maintains a “daily log of media calls” – but department officials, when asked about the policies, said this and other policies aren’t meant as a way to limit access.

But procedures that tightly govern reporters’ access to officials might make journalists’ jobs more difficult, which in turn can limit the information the rest of the public knows about, media experts say.

Carolyn Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee, says the average citizen should care deeply about this changing dynamic, too.

If an agency exerts too much control over interview requests or the release of other information, she said, the public might only be getting a “whitewashed” version of the truth.

“The point of a free press is for press to serve as a watchdog over government,” Carlson said. “And you can’t serve as a watchdog over government if you can’t get sources to tell you what’s going on in government that the government doesn’t want you to know about.”

From the perspective of state agencies, going through the public information office can sometimes help to avoid situations where a reporter would be trying to reach someone who’s out of the office. It also helps HHS – among the largest departments in state government – to be more responsive, they said.

“I think it’s a good management policy,” Deputy Commissioner Marilee Nihan said. “It helps us to log all of the activity. We can monitor trends, try to predict some of the questions that come our way and do work ahead of time. I will say as a department, for us, it’s felt much more organized than before.”

And that agency’s not alone in limiting direct media access to its employees. Initially, when asked about its media policies, the Department of Education maintained that it doesn’t have “official” rules – but then outlined some guidelines.

“We do not have official media procedures,” department spokeswoman Lori Temple said in an email. “The Commissioner, Deputy, and Chief of Staff are the only staff members authorized to speak to the media unless they delegate this to someone else. Most media calls are directed to this office, however some reporters will call staff members directly.”

When asked to clarify what happens if a reporter contacts someone who isn’t one of those three “authorized” officials, Temple provided the following statement: “If a reporter contacts a staff member directly, that staff member will speak with the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner and/or Chief of Staff, prior to answering any questions, in order to determine who is the most knowledgeable person to answer the question.”

The tension between members of the media and the government officials paid to deal with them is present across the country.

Carlson was part of a team that looked into patterns of public information control across the country. In a survey published last year, Carlson and another researcher found that increasing control from public information offices was causing widespread problems for journalists.

“Selective routing” of interview requests through public information offices was an issue for two-thirds of those surveyed – while many reporters also noted difficulty getting interviews instead of prepared statements and conducting interviews without a communications staffer monitoring the conversation.

While the reporters, overall, said they still had positive working relationships with public information officers despite these barriers, they worried about other consequences. About 78 percent of the reporters surveyed agreed with the following statement: “The public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

A separate survey conducted with the Education Writers Association documented similar issues for members of the media in that subject area. And Carlson said a new survey, set to be released in April, found that science reporters also encounter roadblocks when seeking out information or interviews from public agencies.

“If there is something going on that isn’t quite correct or right,” Carlson said, “it gets buried because the reporters have a much harder time finding out something isn’t quite right.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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