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Thursday, June 21, 2012
FOI Toolbox

Survey shows roadblocks for reporters from public affairs officers

By Carolyn S. Carlson

Reporters who cover Congress and federal executive branch agencies aren’t getting the help they need from public affairs officers. Indeed, they are reporting overwhelming frustration trying to interview federal employees or get basic information for the public because of interference from PAOs.

The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee conducted an online survey of 146 Washington, D.C.-area reporters earlier this year and learned that 70 percent considered the “government agency controls over who I interview to be a form of censorship.”

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.”

PRE-APPROVAL

Three-quarters reported that they have to get approval from public affairs officers before interviewing an agency employee (a third said that occurs all of the time and 45 percent some of the time).

PROHIBITION

About half the reporters said agencies outright prohibit reporters from interviewing agency employees altogether at least some of the time, and 18 percent said it happens most of the time.

ROUTING

Seven out of 10 reporters say their requests for interviews are forwarded to public affairs officers for selective routing to whomever they want (23.2 percent, n=23 all the time, 43.5 percent, n=60 most of the time).

MONITORING

About 16 percent of the reporters said their interviews are monitored in person or over the telephone all the time, a third said it happens most of the time, and another third said it happens some of the time. “They often sit in on interviews, though rarely does a PIO interject questions or comments,” one respondent said. But another respondent said, “They sit right next to the person I am interviewing and often times jump in to make a comment or interfere with the conversation.”

AVOIDANCE

More than half of the reporters said they tried to circumvent the public affairs office at least some of the time (54.7 percent, n=75). Nineteen reporters (13.9 percent) said they avoided the public affairs officers altogether, going straight to the agency employees without the PAO consent, but only two reporters (1.5 percent) said they did that all the time.

POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS

Despite the complaints, most of the reporters said they had a positive relationship with their PAOs and PIOs (15.5 percent, n=21 strongly agree, 54.8 percent, n=74 somewhat agree). There were some who were neutral (23 neither agreed nor disagreed (17 percent) and the rest disagreed with the statement that they had a positive relationship with their agency’s PIO (8.9 percent, n=12 somewhat disagreed, 3.7 percent, n=5 strongly disagreed).

RESPONSE TIME

Five reporters (3.6 percent) strongly agreed with the statement “agencies quickly respond to my requests for information and interviews,” and a third said this was true most of the time (33.3 percent, n=46). Half said this was true only some of the time (49.3 percent, n=68), with the rest saying it happened only rarely (13.8 percent, n=19).

However, open-ended 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,” one respondent said. “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 study was released in conjunction with national Sunshine Week in March. SPJ President John Ensslin said in a release announcing the results: “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.”

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.

For more details, see the study report here.

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