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SPJ highlights restrictions on journalists through public information officers, others via website



Rebecca Baker, SPJ National President, (203) 640-3904,
Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ FOI Committee Member, (301) 779-8239,
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134,

INDIANAPOLIS – In its ongoing push for government transparency, the Society of Professional Journalists has launched a section on its website containing information highlighting the issue of local, state and national government agencies preventing critical information from being shared with journalists and the public.

The page includes an interactive timeline, surveys, letters to the White House and published articles that explain the importance of journalists having access to public officials and experts.

“For years, SPJ has led this fight against people in power forcing reporters to notify the authorities — often public information officers — before doing the most basic newsgathering. Now, SPJ presents a rich collection of background and history on these mandated clearance restrictions, one of the most important free speech issues of our time,” said Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member.

At its annual conference in September, SPJ delegates voted to call on journalists, journalism groups, publishers, editors, journalism schools and freedom of information groups to continue pressing for the elimination of restrictions on access to public officials and experts. The public’s need to know demands it, SPJ members say.

“Over the last 25 years or so there has been a relatively rapid trend toward prohibiting staff members from communicating to journalists without reporting to some authority, often public information officers,” Foxhall said. “The restrictions have become, in great part, a cultural norm in the United States. They also have become an effective form of censorship by which powerful entities keeps the public ignorant about what impacts them.”

The Society’s national convention delegates voted to approve Resolution No. 2: Calling on Journalists to Oppose the Mandated Clearance Culture last month.

“SPJ has made fighting these restrictions a priority, in part because many public officials and journalists are silent about them, making the rules particularly potent,” said SPJ National President Rebecca Baker. “Censorship by Public Information Officer works in tandem with other assaults on free speech including restrictions on public records, threats and physical assault on reporters, prosecution of whistleblowers and threats of prosecution against reporters.”

Leading dozens of journalism and free press groups, SPJ sent letters to President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama demanding attention to this issue. In addition, SPJ led a delegation of 53 groups in a meeting with the President Obama’s press secretary at the White House in December 2015. The delegation of journalists — from SPJ, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of News Editors — was promised a response to their concerns but never received one.

The resolution says journalists should resist official efforts to make reporters nothing more than stenographers and openly oppose restrictions on access.

SPJ has more than anecdotes about the trend; seven surveys of journalists and public information officers, sponsored by SPJ and done by Carolyn Carlson of Kennesaw State University, have shown how pervasive these controls have become, including:

– Three-quarters of reporters who cover federal agencies said they must get approval from public affairs officers before interviewing an agency employee.

– Seven of 10 journalists said they considered the government controls over who they interview a form of censorship.

– Forty percent of public information officers in public agencies at various governmental levels said there are specific reporters they block from talking to staff because of “problems” with their past stories.

– Over half of political and general assignment reporters at the state and local levels said interviews must be approved at least most of the time. A majority of those reporters said officials monitor interviews at least some of the time. A majority also said agencies or PIOs have prohibited them from interviewing employees, at least some of the time.

– Almost a third of education reporters said they had been prohibited by the PIO from interviewing school, department or institution employees.

“These restrictions have become an illustration of the inevitable corrosiveness of censorship. Millions of people are silenced about how their workplace affects people. Managers use the control mechanism to keep everything from the public except the story they want people to hear,” Baker said. “SPJ and other organizations will keep fighting for more government transparency because we feel the fight is crucial for a safer, more informed society that holds government offices and officials accountable.”

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.


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