PIO panel addresses transparency challenges for journalists

KNOXVILLE (ETSPJ) – Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) play a crucial role in disseminating information.

East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists will take a comprehensive look at policies and practices dealing with public information officers during a PIO panel. The panel will be held Thursday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at Barley’s Taproom, located at 200 E. Jackson Ave., in Knoxville’s Old City.

Panelists include:

  • Leslie Earhart, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • Becky Huckaby, McGhee Tyson Airport
  • David Keim, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • Jim Ragonese, University of Tennessee Medical Center

The Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism and open government organizations have been working for years to achieve greater transparency in government agencies. Most recently, a small group of journalists met with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest to discuss communications policies, the use of PIOs during interviews, anonymous background briefings, prohibitions against staff members speaking to reporters without notifying PIOs and other policies that prevent information from flowing to the public.

That meeting stemmed from an  Aug. 10, 2015, letter sent by 53 national organizations to President Barack Obama urging changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.

In two separate reports released by the Society of Professional Journalists as part of Sunshine Week, crime reporters and police public information officers were asked about their perceptions of media control efforts, use of social media, body camera footage and public records.

The survey of law enforcement agency PIOs found that most maintain message control by requiring police officers to refer reporters to them when contacted directly by a reporter. A majority of PIOs also monitor the interviews they set up with reporters. Most said the monitoring was done to make sure the officer doesn’t reveal information that is not part of the official messages, although some said they were there simply to reassure a nervous officer who is not comfortable being interviewed, especially on television.

In the crime reporters survey, less than 15 percent of the reporters said they were able to get around the policy of having to go through a PIO to get an interview. The rest said they had to use the PIO to talk to an officer or investigator. This holds true even at crime scenes. Reporters generally have to wait until the PIO shows up to find out what’s going on and, on rare occasions, talk to an investigator. However, for many, the PIO doesn’t come to the crime scene.

The reporter survey shows that crime reporters have a variety of strategies for getting information outside of the PIO restrictions: interviewing witnesses, victims, family members, neighbors, business owners and attorneys, and cross checking social media, for instance. More than half of the reporters said the PIO prevented them from interviewing officers or investigators in a timely manner. Asked what reasons were given, most said it was the agency policy to only have the PIO or sometimes the chief and the PIO speak to the media. Sometimes it was because the investigation was still ongoing.

“While all of the PIOs felt it was their job to send out positive information about their agency, two-thirds of them said they would not go so far as to refuse to answer questions or grant interviews on topics that might damage the agency or its employees,” noted Carolyn Carlson, a member of SPJ’s FOI Committee and associate professor of journalism at Kennesaw State University.

Carlson conducted the surveys and wrote the reports, along with Paymon Kashani, a graduate student at Kennesaw State. They announced the results at an SPJ Georgia Pro Chapter Sunshine Week event in Atlanta.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing findings, Carlson said, is that about half of the PIOs surveyed have a policy of banning interviews with a reporter or media outlet after they have problems with their stories.

“PIOs say they monitor interviews to ensure that correct, consistent messaging is released, to ensure a reporter stays on topic and to ensure interviews stay within the parameters the agencies want, but the extent of these controls are incompatible with a free society,” Carlson said.

“Journalists know many dedicated police officers and realize their jobs are some of the most challenging,” Carlson continued. “We understand that some information must be kept confidential, but police officers and especially investigators should be trained to effectively communicate with journalists while still keeping that confidential information confidential. When agencies put such tight controls on nearly all information, it puts suspicion on the entire law enforcement operation. Consistently silencing police officers and controlling them with oversight keeps critical information from the community.”

Regarding body cameras, less than one-third of PIOs and crime reporters had experience dealing with body camera footage. Though it’s been talked about a lot, and many states are passing or considering passing legislation regarding body camera footage, it hasn’t actually been put into use in most places.

The PIOs who had body cameras reported receiving requests for the footage sparingly – at most once a month, sometimes every few months and many had never received a request. Those who received requests said the most popular topics were calls in which the officer used bodily force, where an officer killed a member of the public, or where there was a confrontation between the officer and the public. Most requests were granted, with some redactions of things like the faces of undercover agents, bystanders, victims and graphic injuries.

Of the crime reporters who had requested body camera footage, two-thirds actually received the footage and most used it on the air, on a website or for information in a print news story.

Only a few reporters say that the crime records that they used to have to ask for, such as crime incident reports, are now being put online. Most say police computer systems make access to public records difficult. Many PIOs report that their records management software is more than four years old, some as old as 10-15 years. They agree that their systems often make it difficult to separate the public from the private information.

When asked to provide more details about the problem, many PIOs said they had to manually redact information, like driver’s license numbers, that could not be released by law, and that slows down the process. Reporters said they usually would get the records they requested within the time frame required by their state law, but rarely right away. Usually, the PIO or the records custodian is able to answer questions about the records, but the reporters say that they rarely will explain why things have been redacted.

The crime reporters survey had 195 respondents from a sample of 1,626, for a response rate of 12 percent and margin of error of 2.4 percent. The survey was taken via SurveyMonkey on Jan. 4-Feb. 8. It was sent to journalists who identified as crime or general assignment reporters, editors or producers from a variety of media types. Those who participated were mostly older, experienced crime reporters.

In the PIO survey, respondents were members of the National Information Officers Association. The survey had 181 respondents from a membership roster of 783 for a response rate of 23.1 percent and a margin of error of 3.5 percent. The survey was taken via SurveyMonkey on Jan. 11-Feb. 9. Most were older and had been police officers before becoming PIOs, with more than half having less than six years’ experience as a PIO.

“Surveys such as these are important in helping us understand the state of journalism/government relationships and how this country is doing in keeping the values it was founded upon,” SPJ National President Paul Fletcher said. “Our founding fathers knew the importance of an open, transparent government and a well-educated society. There is much work to be done – by everyone – to ensure democracy continues the way our forefathers intended.”

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