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Survey: Journalists Report Impediments by Federal Public Information Officers


For immediate release

John Ensslin, SPJ President, 973-513-5632, spjprez@gmail.com
Abby Henkel, SPJ Communications Manager, 317-927-8000 ext. 215, ahenkel@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – A report released today during national Sunshine Week by the Society of Professional Journalists found that reporters who cover federal government agencies say they face impediments to getting information to the public because of interference from public affairs officers.

An online survey of 146 Washington, D.C.-area reporters in February indicated overwhelming frustration from journalists trying to interview federal employees or get basic information for the public.

Download the full report here.

The survey was conducted by the Freedom of Information Committee of SPJ. Key highlights of the study include:

• Pre-approval: Three-quarters of the working journalists reported that they have to get approval from public affairs officers before interviewing agency employees.

• Prohibition: Two-thirds of reporters said agencies outright prohibit reporters from interviewing agency employees some or most of the time.

• Monitoring: About 84 percent said their interviews have been monitored in person or over the phone by government public information officers. “They sit right next to the person I am interviewing and often times jump in to make a comment or interfere with the conversation,” one respondent stated.

• Censorship: Seven out of 10 reporters agreed with the statement, “I consider government agency controls over who I interview a form of censorship.”

• Public hurt: About 85 percent of the journalists agreed with the statement, “The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

Carolyn S. Carlson, a former SPJ president and lead author of the study, said the results were alarming. “Reporters in Washington are struggling to give the public an objective view of the federal government, but are running into interference rather than assistance from the very people hired by the government to help them. Public affairs officers need to facilitate media coverage, not interfere or block it,” she said.

SPJ President John Ensslin agreed, saying, “The findings in this report, while not surprising, are a dismaying trend. Government works best when there’s a free flow of information at all levels. The strategy of spokespeople acting as the spigots of that information inevitably backfires by fostering leaks and intrigue instead of the sunshine of full disclosure.”

On a good note, about 70 percent of the surveyed journalists said they had a positive relationship with the public information officers with whom they work, and most reported that officers quickly respond to their queries most of the time.

However, overwhelmingly, comments from the surveyed journalists indicated increasing frustration at what they perceive as efforts by agencies to control the message to the public. “PAOs tend to make up information,” stated one respondent. “You can never trust the information they provide. They make our jobs almost impossible and they treat journalists with barely any professionalism.”

Another respondent: “They act as gatekeepers. And they are very rarely completely helpful or forthcoming.”

The survey was conducted online Jan. 23 through Feb. 24. A sample of 776 journalists identified by SPJ as covering federal agencies were contacted, and 146 responded (19 percent). Most (91 percent) were reporters and worked for wire services (32 percent) or large newspapers (32 percent). The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 7 percent.

The survey was conducted by Carolyn S. Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and David Cuillier, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., on behalf of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, of which both are members. Carlson is a former national SPJ president. Cuillier is a former chairman of the FOI Committee and is currently secretary-treasurer of SPJ’s national board of directors. They were assisted by Kennesaw journalism student Lindsay Tulkoff.

For more details, see the study report at http://spj.org/pdf/reporters-survey-on-federal-PAOs.pdf. For further information, contact Carlson at ccarls10@kennesaw.edu or Cuillier at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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