Home > Freedom of Information > Public information officers

Public information officers
Who they are, why they're a problem for journalists and the public, and what we're doing about it

Jump to:
Interactive timeline
Case studies
SPJ Surveys
SPJ letters to White House
SPJ meeting with White House
SPJ-published articles
Other articles

Case studies

New York Times Reporter Says There Is Almost Zero Access to EPA Career Staff
Communications Editor: You Go Through The PIO and The PIO Observes
No Reply. Then Nonresponse Response and A Command Not to Name
Blocks to Request to Talk at NCI
Office of Civil Rights Doesn’t Respond
Map and Some Disparaging Remarks, But No Data
Social Security Knows Who We Are. Do We know Who They Are?

SPJ Surveys

SPJ has now sponsored seven surveys on this issue.

2016 Survey of Police Reporters [PDF]
2016 Survey of Police PIOs [PDF]
2015 Survey of Science Writers [PDF]
2014 Survey of Education Writers [PDF]
2014 Survey of Political and General Assignment Reporters Across the Country [PDF]
2013 Survey of Public Information Officers [PDF]
2012 Survey of Reporters Covering Federal Entities [PDF]

See also:
– 2017: "Gatekeepers Under Siege: Assessing Factors of Governmental Public Information Officers' Controls on Journalists," by Carolyn S. Carlson and David Cuillier, Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 38 No. 2 Spring 2017. For a copy, contact ccarls10@kennesaw.edu.
– 2017: Mediated Access: Police Public Information Officers and Crime Reporters on Message Control, Social Media, Body Camera Footage and Public Records [GSTF Journal on Media & Communications]
– August 2015: Mediated Access: Transparency Barriers for Journalists’ Access to Scientists and Scientific Information at Government Agencies [SPJ/Center for Science and Democracy] [PDF]

SPJ letters to White House

January 2017: SPJ, 60 other journalism groups, ask Trump administration for meeting on government access
September 2016: Groups to White House: We will continue to fight for government transparency
August 2015: More than 50 journalism groups again urge President Obama to stop excessive controls on public information
July 2014: SPJ in the news: White House letter reaches its destination and then some

SPJ meeting with White House

December 2015: Journalists ask White House for commitment to openness
December 2015: Paper for President Obama on Restrictions on Press Freedom [PDF]

SPJ-published articles

March 2017: The front line of public censorship [postandcourier.com]
December 2016: 18 Ways to Fight Censoring PIOs [SPJ Blogs]
September 2016: Less Than Transparent: Journalists Fault Obama [nytimes.com]
March 2016: Drastic change in federal culture needed to end suppression of information [sunshineweek.org]
December 2015: SPJ & MuckRock launch #AccessDenied Project to gather journalists’ PIO access issues [spj.org]
September 2015: SPJ Resolution: On Public Information Office Media Control
August 2015: SPJ survey of science journalists basis for new report on public information offices and transparency
September 2014: On receiving the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for advocacy on this issue, Kathryn Foxhall asked whether journalists are putting up with the censorship or whether we are colluding with it. [SPJ Blogs]
February 2014: President, other government leaders, should end spin-control culture [sunshineweek.org]
March 2011: Where’s the transparency that Obama promised? [washingtonpost.com]

Other articles

May 20, 2019: How to deal with obstructive public information officers? Challenge them. [cjr.org]
January 23, 2017: SPJ National President Lynn Walsh on The Jim Bohannon Show
October 2016: How the FDA Manipulates the Media [scientificamerican.com]
Related, August 2013: FDA denial of Citizen Petition No. FDA-2009-P-0500-0001
April 2016: Editorial: Keeping public information bottled up [newsobserver.com]
March 2016: Special treatment or limited access? State government policies dictate who can talk to the press [chippewa.com]
November 2015: Today’s federal agencies are ‘highly message-controlled.’ Here’s what that means for health reporting [cjr.org]
November 2015: Obama's opaque administration makes it harder to cover climate change [thebulletin.org]
March 2015: Access denied: Reporters say federal officials, data increasingly off limits [washingtonpost.com]
July 2014: Rieder: An important crusade for open government [usatoday.com]
May 2014: When Censorship Becomes a Cultural Norm [editorandpublisher.com]
March 2014: House committee puts up website to track stonewalling by Veterans Affairs press office
December 2013: Kathryn Foxhall: Public Affairs Offices and Transparency in Federal Agencies [youtube.com]
August 2013: Panel at the National Press Club [c-span.org] (Transcripts and other materials from the panel are available here.)

Whether it’s being told to call a general communications line, contact a spokesperson or send questions through a public information officer, in many instances, journalists are not allowed to speak to people intimately involved in the issues they cover. Sometimes they are not even allowed access to individuals being named in their stories.

It’s a common practice both government and non-government agencies have put in place, making it extremely unlikely that staff members will mention to reporters things like storage areas that might contain illegally-held pathogens; or young children drinking lead in their water; or insider trading with the help of a federal employee.

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.

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 keep the public ignorant about what impacts them.

The Society of Professional Journalists has made fighting these restrictions a priority, in part because many public officials and journalists are silent about them, making the rules particularly potent.

This “Censorship by PIO” works in tandem with other assaults on free speech including restrictions on public records, threats and physical assaults 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, a SPJ led a delegation representing 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 — were promised a response to their concerns but never received one.

SPJ has much 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 on 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. The 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.

On this page, you will find links to documents detailing SPJ’s fight against these restrictions, the completed surveys done and news articles about the restrictions.

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.

Interactive Timeline of the PIO Issue

Join SPJ
Join SPJWhy join?