What’s a bigger threat to journalists’ ability to hold government accountable–the Obama administration’s crackdown on leaks or the roadblocks thrown up by public information officers? I suspect most reporters outside Washington, DC, would point to PIOs, some of whom seem to think their No. 1 job is to limit access to information, not to provide it. That’s tantamount to censorship and it happens every day at every level of government.
It’s now routine for PIOs to demand questions in advance, to sit in on interviews or even to block reporters from speaking with agency employees. And it gets worse. One PIO showed up at a reporter’s home after midnight to pass along her boss’s demand changes in a story. What can be done?
Linda Peterson and Kathryn Foxhall have a few suggestions. They’re two of the people behind SNAC–Stop the New American Censorship–which asks journalists to sign an online statement against censorship by PIOs. Writing in SPJ’s Quill magazine, Peterson and Foxhall shared tips for fighting back. Among them:
Work hard to skirt the monitors. That doesn’t just mean not taking no for an answer. To get around PIOs, don’t go through them in the first place. Figure out who has the information you need and contact them directly. It may not always work, but it’s worth trying.
Share your contact list. Peterson and Foxhall admit this runs counter to all journalists’ instincts to keep sources to themselves. But helping colleagues get around the PIO nannies would benefit the public.
Kill PIOs with kindness. If getting around them doesn’t work, bombard PIOs with information requests. “Sometimes they’ll get so sick of you, they’ll give you the direct information for the person you’re looking for.”
Protest at every turn. If you can’t get around them and you can’t go through them, push back. Protest every denial to the PIO’s boss, in writing. Have your boss protest, too.
Share with your audience. If you’re thwarted or denied information, say so in your story. Name names. And be clear about why these roadblocks matter. You don’t want to come off as whining that PIOs are making your job harder. You want your audience to see, clearly, that they are being denied information that belongs to them. Public information.
What tips would you add?
Bob Priddy, news director at Missourinet, weighed in with this suggestion:
Use a surrogate. The person you want to talk to has to step outside the office sometime. They speak to clubs, testify at hearings, attend meetings. Go there, too. “Either get with somebody in the organization or somebody on the committee or board they’re meeting with and plant some questions,” Priddy advises. “And when they’re done, meet them in the hallway and ask questions yourself, remembering during the conversation to apologize for getting in their way out the door but emphasizing it’s necessary because their PIO refuses to let you talk to your subject personally. And don’t forget to ask that they speak to their flack and tell them it’s okay to let you get through the next time you call.”