Opinion / Politics / Transparency

Chilling Effect: When Spokespeople Block Your Right to Know

Photo Credit: SolomonVipe via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: SolomonVipe via Compfight cc

By Margaret Wright

— I’d been at my day job for just half an hour when I felt the cell phone in my pocket vibrate: One missed call. Then another. And a third.

I’m not allowed to use my phone when I’m on the clock as a low-level grocery store manager. (While journalism is my heart’s profession, it doesn’t always pay the bills.) I’d been hustling all morning to finish a news piece about activists protesting education policies mandated by the state. What if it was an urgent question from my editor?

I took a quick break to check my messages and sagged against the wall when I saw the text. It was from Larry Behrens, the spokesperson for Hanna Skandera, state secretary-designate of public education: “Tried to call you for an interview with the secretary.”

It’s difficult to get time with high-level government officials like Skandera. Public school educators, parents and students are increasingly vocal about sweeping changes enacted under her leadership. The prospect of an in-depth, extended interview that could cut through the swirl of controversy was thrilling. I texted Behrens back: “My apologies. I’m at my other job & not allowed to use the phone. Any way we can schedule for tomorrow morning and do a full follow-up piece?”

In my relatively short stint as a journalist, I’ve rarely encountered such an opportunity. Fellow reporters who have been in the game longer than I have say it wasn’t always like this, that not long ago they could talk directly, spontaneously, on the record, to elected officials and government employees about their work.

The reporting process these days is often obstructed with inadequate information provided by hard-to-access spokespeople. This method—on the rise in the decade or so—is used to control the flow of public communications: Without comment and explanation from the folks in charge, it’s hard to write a balanced story.

In 2012, five veteran U.S. journalists started a website called Stop the New American Censorship to protest this form of information blackout. They began “to organize against the serious threat to the quality of newsgathering posed by controls over journalists through public information officers.” They created a signing statement for reporters and news organizations to adopt and began compiling instances of spokespeople controlling government information in ways that stymie the public’s right to know.

Meanwhile, reporters in New Mexico have tried to break through barriers to public information. The Santa Fe Reporter filed a lawsuit against the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez in September, alleging that her staff violated public records and press freedom laws. The alt.weekly further alleged that “silence from the governor’s office amounts to prior restraint and censorship.”

PIOs Choose to be Help or Hindrance

I’ve seldom experienced obstruction or avoidance from public information officers. They arrange for me to interview other experts they work with or clear up facts. They scramble to comment or provide information before my deadlines.

I’m also trained to regard spokespeople as worthy adversaries. The tension’s inevitable: My obligation is to probe the inner workings of public and private institutions. They are hired to act as gatekeepers to that information.

Still, I have empathy for what they deal with on a daily basis. Like journalists, their jobs are difficult, high-pressure, high-stress and often thankless. Spokespeople are expected to respond with accurate, carefully considered answers to reporters on deadline. They are responsible for ensuring everyone around them conveys information that’s correct and consistent. Their jobs are at stake if a gaffe slips through the cracks of their agency—even if the gaffe wasn’t theirs.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated with the demands they increasingly make.

Photo Credit: jgh_photo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jgh_photo via Compfight cc

For example, I insist that my sources conduct interviews with me in person or, if that’s not possible, live and on-the-record over the phone. And I don’t give my sources advance notice about the exact questions I plan to ask. The aim isn’t to use interviews to trap people. It’s to help my sources tell their side of each story in a way that flows as naturally as possible.

But these days, PIOs typically insist that reporters’ questions be submitted and responded to via email.

Why is this a problem? Because my chief objective is to provide honest, accurate information using transparent methods. If I give a source questions to prepare for ahead of time, transparency is compromised. I have no way of knowing for sure that he or she formulated the responses on their own.

The same applies to interviews conducted via email. If I attribute a quote to a specific person, that’s because he or she provided it. Sounds rudimentary—but such certainty isn’t possible when I hand over questions to a source via email. The finished response might have their signature attached, but I have no way of knowing that it wasn’t written and workshopped by committee, or that someone else didn’t compose the entirety of it.

Plus, giving one source all the time they need to craft a quote in writing puts them at a distinct advantage over the other people I question spontaneously and in-person.

Yet against my better ethical judgment, time and again, I’ve complied with such demands from spokespeople. I do it because otherwise I might not get comment from them at all. Ultimately, that feels like a disservice to the public.

This brings me back to the problem I’ve begun to encounter during reporting: PIOs who simply refuse to respond to requests for information.

Wall of Silence

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s chief spokesperson Dayna Gardner was the first. I was reporting on the Rio Grande Vision, Berry’s proposal to construct new public amenities, trails and commercial services in and around the Bosque wilderness. After gathering quotes over the phone from people who opposed the plans, I turned to city officials directly involved in the initiative to balance out the piece. As usual, they referred me to Gardner.

Photo Credit: geezaweezer via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: geezaweezer via Compfight cc

I left a message on her voice mail requesting a call back, and soon received a text message. Here’s how the exchange went down on Friday, Sept. 20:

10:01 a.m. Gardner: Can’t talk right now. What’s up?

10:05 a.m. Me: Hello! This is Margaret Wright reporting for the Local IQ & the NM Compass. Need ?s answered at some point today re: Rio Grande Vision. L. Rumpf referred me to you.

1:51 p.m. Me: Greetings! Any thoughts on when we can chat today? I really need city comment to balance the piece.

2:35 p.m. Gardner: Parks and Open Space can speak to the the Rio Grande Vision

2:39 p.m. Me: Hmm, they referred me to you. Is there anyone specific you recommend I request to speak to?

2:52 p.m. Gardner: Check out abqthePlan.cabq or riograndevision.com

3:07 p.m. Me: Cool, thanks. Mayor’s Office is listed as point of contact on those webpages. So no comment from his office at this time?

She never replied.

Her refusal to be interviewed meant I had to try to balance out my article using information that was already available to the public. The city missed an opportunity to respond to its critics, clear up potential misinformation and add new details to the conversation.

I’ve been surprised to learn that on the most controversial issues, this appears to be the norm and not the exception. After interviewing demonstrators at Public Education rally one night, I called PED’s spokesperson Behrens the next morning for comment. It was two hours before my deadline. He replied that it’s courteous to allow spokespeople more time to formulate comments. I sent a few questions to him via email. As the hours slipped by with no response, my editor Marisa Demarco decided to post the story without the department’s responses, saying we could publish Behrens’ answers as a separate piece. He sent his replies in the next morning.

Sadly, he still hasn’t replied to my request to reschedule an interview with Skandera.

I sent additional texts. I emailed over days and times I was available. I left voice messages. For six days, I continued calling, emailing and texting requests for a conversation. “Bewildered by your lack of response,” I wrote in my latest message. “Any light you might shed in that regard also very welcome.”  No reply.

It’s starting to look like my lack of compliance with Behrens’ precise instructions and timeframe may have gotten me shut out of access to his department. By journalistic standards and basic tenets that protect the public’s right to know, that constitutes censorship.

In the meantime, I’ll keep leaving polite messages for Behrens. And I’ll let you know when he calls me back, because it’s not only my right to know what his agency is up to—it’s yours.

2 thoughts on “Chilling Effect: When Spokespeople Block Your Right to Know

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