RTDNA supports Illinois journalists protesting state’s attorney’s outrageous media policy

June 20, 2019 11:00

Say hello to Marilyn Hite Ross.
RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force did, in a letter sent to her by the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, the Illinois Broadcasters Association and the Illinois Press Association.
Hite Ross was appointed by the Winnebago County, Ill., state’s attorney in November, to complete the unexpired term of her predecessor, who’d just been elected to a judgeship. She had been the previous state’s attorney’s criminal bureau chief. Shortly after taking office in December, she issued a new policy governing her interactions with journalists.
The policy dictates that reporters wishing to interview Hite Ross must submit their questions in advance. If the interview is granted, any reporter who asks about something not on the pre-approved list will have his or her questioning terminated immediately.
County Atty Interview Request Form

Local news organizations in Rockford, the county seat, have tried to get Hite Ross to rescind the policy, but she has steadfastly refused. She even took her policy an ominous step forward, having a reporter removed from a news conference because the journalist asked a question not related to the event’s stated topic.
So, out of frustration over their inability to keep the public informed without being encumbered by unreasonable restrictions, an attorney for the groups representing Illinois journalists, along with RTDNA, sent Hite Ross a letter requesting a meeting. The letter states, in part:
Your insistence that news organizations submit a written interview request, and especially the requirement to specifically identify potential questions and to provide the perspective of the story, makes your office an outlier among public institutions here and around the state.
Your refusal to answer what you consider “off topic” questions, culminating in the escorting of a longtime Rockford journalist from a press conference, borders on the ridiculous. We believe no question to a public official in a public setting is “off limits.”
Hite Ross’ motive for enacting her policy, for refusing to answer “off topic” questions, and for punishing journalists who decline to follow the policy don’t just harm the journalists of Winnebago County; they hamper her constituents’ – the public’s – ability to be informed about the actions her office is taking.
“As the state’s attorney, Hite Ross is effectively the highest-ranking law enforcement official in her jurisdiction. It is unconscionable for her to enact such a ludicrous interview policy in direct contravention to the transparency and accountability she tacitly agreed to when accepting the county board’s appointment to her position,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director.
“RTDNA stands ready to fight for journalists’, and, more important, the public’s, not just right, but need, to know what its public officials are doing in their name,” he added.
If you or your newsroom is facing legal or other challenges to your constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth, reach out to our Voice of the First Amendment Task Force.
RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force defends against threats to the First Amendment and news media access and helps the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. RTDNA is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats against press freedom in America. Reach out to the task force by contacting pressfreedom@rtdna.org and contributing to support press freedom.