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Gatekeeping continues to prevent the flow of government information to journalists, public
Kathryn Foxhall, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Vice Chair, 301-779-8239, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Director of Communications and Marketing, 317-361-4134, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Editor’s Note: The following column was written by Kathryn Foxhall, Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee vice chair, for Sunshine Week.
Last year, 25 groups wrote to President Joe Biden’s administration saying journalists’ jobs are intentionally hindered by the government in many ways. These include, as we wrote, “barring government scientists, issue specialists and other government employees from communicating directly with reporters and even refusing to allow interviews of such scientists or specialists, even with oversight by a public information officer.”
Addressed to the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the letter was signed on by groups including the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association, the Society for Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists.
The issue is far from new, of course. Over the past three decades the forced monitoring and blocking of journalists has become tighter and tighter. Some journalists say one presidential administration learns from the last and then builds the controls stronger.
Foundational to the restrictions is the message that agencies or offices give to the employees — written or otherwise — that they may never speak to a journalist without monitoring from the bosses, often through public information offices.
This means that when a reporter contacts a staff member at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Food and Drug Administration, that person will usually tell the reporter they have to go through the PIOs. From there, officials decide behind closed doors whether there will be an answer at all, who can speak and what can be said.
A comprehensive analysis from the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information found that existing controls are unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment.
Last spring the Washington, D.C., chapter of SPJ wrote to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, saying the “restrictions on staff speaking to reporters without notifying authorities amount to a human rights abuse, withholding critical perspective from the public and from health professionals.”
Walensky responded, “CDC scientists and researchers communicate with members of the press about their work. However, CDC experts are working scientists and are not always available for interviews. Our press officers serve as points of contact for news media to provide relevant background information and to ensure questions are answered in a timely manner.”
With reporters’ access pretty well controlled through that choke point, leaders can also make briefings few and far between, without fear reporters will get around them.
Journalists get stories, of course. Sometimes we take what officials hand to us or interviews they allow under monitors. Sometimes we fill an article out with comments from outside sources. Sometimes insiders defy the rules and talk to us without reporting to the authorities.
However, with up to several thousand people in an institution prohibited to speak, or prohibited to speak without minders, it’s impossible that we know enough about issues critical to the public.
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reported that CDC was not releasing all the data it has on COVID. Perhaps reporters should have been in the buildings getting to know staff people, chatting with them normally.
Meanwhile, the controls have become somewhat of a societal norm. Many government entities on the federal, state and local level, businesses and nonprofit organizations put the no-talking-to-the-press rules on employees.
There are many reasons these controls have happened, including reporters rushing to get a story; journalists believing what they get is the story, rather than a limited piece of the overall context; and officials legitimately fearing something will blow up on them, sometimes before they know about it themselves.
However, there is also a great deal of manipulation of information to serve political or other purposes.
As Russia is so profusely illustrating for us, information control by people in power is not just wrong, it’s one of the most corrosive and deadly forces in human existence.
In January, the Office of Science and Technology Policy published the scientific integrity report for the Biden administration, which basically endorsed press control policies as they have existed for years.
Freedom of information officers from SPJ and SEJ wrote to the OSTP, saying the gatekeeping process “has slowed and effectively constricted the flow of information to journalists. The public is instead often fed a steady diet of curated information and official ‘talking points’ designed to support the agency’s position.”
Seven months after the original letter, and with the exception of acknowledgement emails, OSTP has not answered any of the groups’ correspondence.
Kathryn Foxhall is a veteran reporter on federal health issues. She is an active SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Member and on the SPJ Washington, D.C., Pro Chapter Board.
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 SPJ Foundation.