Government and the Press: A Troubled Partnership

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March 15, 2017
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene

Over the course of more than 25 years covering state and local government, we’ve seen a great many changes. When we started, many accounting systems didn’t follow any set of guidelines. The very phrase, “performance measurement,” needed to be explained (many people thought it was a synonym for “employee evaluations.”) A number of state officials were even able to stay above and beyond the partisan fray that already was deeply felt at the federal level. Clearly, much has changed.

One seismic shift we’ve experienced applies to us directly (which, perhaps, is what makes it seem seismic). Though our work covers a number of fronts including research, analysis, and writing, our fundamental skills are based in our professional origins as journalists.

It’s in that role that we’re witness to a disconcerting shift. In the old days, we could frequently pick up the phone and reach high-level officials in states and cities. That wasn’t true of mayors or governors, of course, but it certainly extended to agency and department heads. Nowadays, direct connections to our sources – even people whom we’ve known for ten or fifteen years – are far more difficult to achieve. Increasingly, we’re required to go through public information officers. We’re asked to provide questions in advance (which we can rarely even do – as prescribed sets of questions don’t leave room for follow-ups), and increasingly, public information officers want us to conduct our interviews via e-mail, rather than on the phone.

We know this is nothing to take personally. As we’ve chatted with writers for a number of publications that cover states, cities and, the federal government, we’ve found that our experiences are widespread.

Barry Smith of the Nevada Press Association told us that “in some places, the journalists are outnumbered by the public information officers, the handlers, and the spokespeople. I think that’s been a trend for twenty years or more. And it’s been increasingly common for the spokesperson to try to answer all the questions themselves, rather than putting a journalist in touch with a director.”

Before we begin to sound like a pair of complainers, we want to make it clear that, in many instances, public information officers, schedulers, executive assistants, and the like can be very helpful in scheduling the conversations easily. They can also provide details and data for follow-up questions that don’t come up until after the initial conversation has taken place. And, in the best of all words, they can help the interviewee understand the nature of the interview, and the kinds of questions that will likely come up.

As we were writing this, we decided to place a call to a long-time friend (and classmate at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern), Alan Bernstein. He’s been on both sides of the fence, as a long-time employee of the Houston Chronicle and as a representative to the press for Sheriff Adrian Garcia of Harris County, Texas, the third largest county in the country. While he agrees that gatekeepers can impede the smooth flow of information from policymakers to the public, which isn’t really helpful to either party, he sees the benefits he’s been able to bring to the press in his role as a liaison. “One reason it’s a benefit for gatekeepers to control the flow is that you can make sure the responses are accurate,” he told us.

Our friend made it clear that – at least in law enforcement – it’s important that a police representative at the scene of a crime speaks directly to the press when there’s real immediacy to the questions at hand; in the best of circumstances that person would be a well-informed supervisor. Our friend thought it was often important, though, for the officer on the scene to restrain commentary to the basic facts of the shooting, stabbing, or robbery, and not go beyond that. “If they were going to be asked what they thought about immigration, that’s a policy question. And we wanted them to refer that to media relations.”

Based on our own experiences, we have two pieces of advice to pass along; one for the reporter, the other for government media representatives.

For Reporters: Assume that a public information officer is your friend, is trying to help you get the most out of an interview, and that you’re talking to the right person. Resisting the intermediary’s role is rarely going to help very much. Go with the flow until you reach a dead end.

For Media Representatives: Answer your phone calls and e-mails. If you keep a reporter, particularly one on deadline, waiting for days or even weeks to get back, you’re nearly guaranteeing that the relationship between that individual and your boss is going to start off on an acrimonious note.

And that doesn’t help anyone.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
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Philadelphia, PA 19104

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