A new survey from the Society of Professional Journalists reveals that gatekeepers installed by the government are keeping reporters from sources of information inside federal agencies, resulting in a censorship that is preventing the full flow of information the public needs.
The startling revelations come from a survey done by SPJ on the eve of Sunshine Week 2012, a recognition of the need for the public to know what government is doing.
The assessment found “that information flow in the United States is highly regulated by public affairs officers, to the point where most reporters considered the control to be a form of censorship and an impediment to providing information to the public.”
The SPJ surveyed 146 reporters who cover federal agencies for the online survey taken Jan. 23 through Feb. 24.
“Journalists overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that ‘the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices,’” the report said.
The survey was conducted by Carolyn Carlson, an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and a former president of SPJ, and David Cuillier, director of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee. Also assisting was Lindsay Tulkoff, a graduate assistant at Kennesaw.
According to the survey of reporters, 70 percent consider government controls censorship. Three-quarters of the respondents said they have to “get approval from a public affairs official before interviewing an agency employee.”
The survey contains a margin of error of plus or minus 7 percent.
Among the findings:
- Three-fourths of journalists reported they have to get approval from a public affairs officer before they can interview an agency employee.
- Half the reporters said agencies simply prohibit reporters from interviewing agency employees at least some of the time. Eighteen percent said it happens most of the time.
- Seventy percent said their requests for interviews are forwarded to public affairs officers for routing to whomever they want.
- Some 16 percent of the reporters said their interviews are monitored in person or over the telephone all of the time.
“They sit right next to the person I am interviewing and often times jump in to make a comment or interfered with the conversation,” one reporter said.
Reporters say they have resorted to trying to circumvent an agency public affairs office at least some of the time, including a minority who do that all of the time in order to do the reporting on government activities that they are expected to provide.
Seventy percent agreed with, “I consider government agency controls over who I interview a form of censorship.”
The survey said reporters believe the public is being hurt by the government restrictions on their reports.
About 85 percent of the journalists agreed with the statement that “The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”
The survey also left open a section for comments from the reporters. One noted that worse than obstructing information, the public affairs officers sometimes are much more dangerous.
“PAOs tend to make up information. You can never trust the information they provide. They make our jobs almost impossible and they treat journalists with barely any professionalism,” one reporter told the survey takers.
The survey results obtained under the Barack Obama administration are just the latest in a series of indicators that some government leaders want significantly more control over the information available to the public.
For example, critics say that friends of the Obama administration are trying to sneak the now-defunct “Fairness Doctrine” back into law, disguised as an action project on “climate change.”
In a recent report called “Building the Obama Administration’s Climate Legacy,” the Presidential Climate Action Project, or PCAP, recommends reinstating the “Fairness Doctrine,” the old FCC rule that kept conservative talk radio off the airwaves until it was struck down during the Reagan administration.
Unlike many progressive calls for talk radio censorship, the PCAP report doesn’t disguise its intentions with words like broadcasting “localism.” Instead, it states its recommendations plainly: “National discourse today is tainted – and in some cases poisoned – by unbalanced ideological use of the public airwaves. … To improve and better inform public discourse, it is time for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.”
Censorship has surfaced in other contexts. A Muslim who claimed to represent an organization of Islamic nations recently threatened to eliminate WND and its employees “within America” if the news agency did not respond appropriately to his demands to alter its news report.
“If you do not comply then WND and it’s (sic) employees will become targets for our UIA agents who will eliminate you within America,” said an email from Faarooq al Mohammedi, who has said he is working on behalf of a Muslim organization called United Muslim Nations International organization.
Further, there reportedly have been attempts to stifle reporting on the controversy surrounding Obama’s eligibility. One column citing an investigation that concludes Obama’s Selective Service registration apparently is fraudulent was pulled from a popular site.
And the lead investigator for Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Cold Case Posse, which investigated for six months and concluded that there is probable cause that there was forgery in the creation of Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate and fraud in its presentation, reported that sources during the investigation said that news agencies had been threatened with federal investigations should they continue to report on the issue.