Combating the PIO problem

October 3, 2018 11:00

At EIJ18, former AP reporter Dr. Carolyn Carlson asked how many journalists in the room had issues getting information from their local public information officers. More than half the audience raised their hands.
 
“Censorship by PIO: Challenging Gag Orders on News Sources” was a workshop created to mitigating this problem. The session, led by Carlson as well as Brechner Center for Freedom of Information Director Frank LoMonte, presented the audience with a recent study that she completed on the relationship between reporters and PIOs, as well as helpful tips to combat these officials interfering in reporting.
 
According to Carlson’s research, local reporters, federal reporters, and crime reporters were most likely to be banned from spaces for attempting to get to sources without a PIO acting as go-between in the story. She also provided statistics on how often PIOs sit in on reporters’ interviews without their consent, and how likely they are to respond to interview requests.
 
After presenting her findings, Carlson then provided helpful tips on how to do accurate reporting with public sector officials or experts without PIOs being present.
 
 “We focus so much on the interview process, getting interviews with subject matter experts, and how some reporters are getting thwarted from getting closest to the people and the issues that they are trying to document,” Carlson said.
 
First, Carlson recommended contacting sources outside of their office space to avoid a PIO who is trying to prevent an interaction. This is especially useful if a reporter is banned from the actual space for trying to gain access.
 
“If you’re banned from the building, stand outside and wait for them to come out,” Carlson added.
 
Carlson also gave suggestions on what to do when reporting a crime scene. Instead of talking to a PIO, she recommends speaking to sources and seeking resources outside of the ongoing crime scene itself: witnesses, local businesses, neighbors, and even taking a look at the police records after the fact.
 
Above all, she recommends maintaining a professional relationship with PIOs, and remaining courteous if they have to be involved in the reporting. But she does think there is room for pushback:
 
“They are not in charge of you, they’re not your boss, they cannot determine what you do as a reporter.”
 
In the second half of the presentation, LoMonte presented evidence in legal cases concerning when it is okay to talk to both public sector and private sector employees.
 
“Prior restraints on public employee speech is unconstitutional. Public employees may safely speak about matters of public concern as long as long as they don’t disrupt the workplace,” LoMonte said.
 
LoMonte also spoke at length about the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the ability to organize and includes the ability to discuss workplace conditions, no matter what kind of gag order has been placed by a direct higher up or management.
 
And what about the private sector? LoMonte has tips for that, too.
 
“If you’re at an agency where everyone is banned from speaking to the media and you’re covering that agency, the first thing you should find out is who made this policy, and get it in writing,” LoMonte said.
 
Often, he explained, there may not be an actual policy in place to prevent employees from speaking to the media. If there is no specific policy in writing, there is an opportunity for the reporter to challenge the gag order.
 
“We have a road map to do this in the judicial sector,” LoMonte said of the cases that set this precedent to protect reporters. “And we’d like to start taking it to the executive branch, because these orders are everywhere on every level of government.”
 
The biggest takeaway from the session was that PIO censorship is not only indefensible in several legal situations, but can be avoided, and that journalists can take the steps to prevent it from hindering their reporting.
 
“Just because they don’t want you to cover it, doesn’t mean you don’t cover it,” Carlson said. You just do it a different way.”