Attended a fascinating debate last night at the venerable National Press Club in DC (this place is sacred ground to me!) tackling the sticky issue of Freedom of the Press / right to access vs. Public Affairs Officers at government agencies, local to federal. Not being a PAO or working with them, many of the complaints of the veteran journalists on the panel were eye opening to me.
For instance, the journalists across the board saw the PAO role as institutionalized censorship – stopping the flow of information to the public, making a power grab over what gets disseminated, imposing punishment on reporters who go around the PAO Office to contact other staff sources (as well as punishing staff who talk to reporters without ‘authorization’), and often dishing out santized pablum to protect their Agency, their boss or some vague concept of ‘security’. Former AP reporter and assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University Carolyn Carlson cited her recent survey in which many PAOs owned up to these types of behaviors. And Linda Petersen, managing editor at The Valley Journals of Salt Lake & freedom of information chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, made the compelling point that no PAO has ever been elected, so why should they be permitted to speak in lieu of office holders who are accountable to the public.
The balance on the panel came from two PAOs – senior level, long tenure, who seemed like very reasonable people. Perhaps they were an exception? They offered points of view that often contrasted the journalists – that they rely on the media to get complex information to the public in understandable language, that they advocate for the press within their Agencies, and that they provide context and guidance for non-media savvy subject experts to prepare for productive interviews. One also admitted that sometimes PAOs will listen in on supposedly ‘private’ interviews between a SME and a reporter.
The core issue really came down to trust. Journalists and reporters are increasingly pressed to cover more topics, faster. For young reporters, there is little opportunity for depth in a story or in becoming a subject expert. This was confirmed by both sides. PAOs bemoaned that reporters lacking depth of subject understanding hurt trust by (unintentionally) misrepresenting issues. One acknowledged that being known in an Agency as someone who talks to the press too much is career limiting. Journalists challenged that they are systematically denied access, and that public right-to-know information is often buried to avoid Agency or individual embarrassment. Young reporters are often willing to accept what is spoon fed by PAOs rather than dig for real hard news that might offend or anger the PAO. And we all know what financial pressures are doing to media outlets, with the infotainment line increasingly blurring.
One PAO panelist noted four hard boundaries for their profession – security, accuracy, policy (particularly around private or sensitive information), and propriety – they would not offend the Public. Do all PAOs adhere to this code of ethics? Probably not, but perhaps many do. And while there still are many quality reporters with integrity, I couldn’t help but reflect on the feeding frenzy that occurs on broadcast news for any juicy story, so I understand the desire to exercise considerable caution.
Still, I found troubling the growing control over access to information from those who are, ultimately, public servants and publicly accountable. Certainly there are legitimate security concerns, and some things must be kept private. But last Sunday night I watched a documentary called “Our Nixon” about a pre-PAO era, so I have to wonder. If the Press is the unofficial fourth branch of government, what’s happening to checks and balances?
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