By Carolyn S. Carlson, Ph.D.
Kennesaw State University
August 12, 2013
I am going to tell you about two surveys I conducted last year that are relevant to the topic we are discussing tonight. First I surveyed reporters who cover federal agencies in Washington, and I got 146 respondents, for a margin of error of about 7 percent. Then I surveyed current and former members of the National Association of Government Communicators and got 154 responses, for a margin of error of 4.3 percent.
My questions focused on the interviewing process.
Pre-Approval and Routing
• 98 percent of Public Affairs Offices believe they have a better idea than reporters about who would be the best person to give an interview on a given topic.
• Three-quarters of journalists report they have to get approval from PAOs before interviewing an agency employee.
• Seven out of 10 reporters say their requests for interviews are forwarded to PAOs for selective routing to whomever they suggest.
• About half the reporters said agencies outright prohibit them from interviewing altogether at least some of the time, and 18 percent said it happens most of the time.
• Two-thirds of PAOs say they feel justified in refusing to grant an interview when the agency’s security is threatened or it might reveal damaging information.
• Three-fourths of PAOs know that journalists attempt to “go around” them to contact staff members directly. However, nine out of ten say their staff knows and will refer reporter to the PAO when they have been contacted directly .
• More than half of the reporters admit that they tried to circumvent the public affairs office at least some of the time.
• For the majority of PAOs, there are no reporters that they trust enough to contact staff directly without having to go through the public affairs office. Only about a third of PAOs said they had reporters they gave free rein to contact staff directly, mostly long-time beat reporters.
• In contrast, 40 percent of the PAOs say there are specific reporters they will not allow their staff to talk to at all due to problems with their stories in the past.
• In fact, 14 percent reported that there were entire media outlets they prohibited staff from talking to because of problems with their stories.
• Two thirds of PAOs feel it is necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with members of their agency's staff.
• Meanwhile, 85 percent of reporters say they get monitored at least some of the time – it breaks down a third some of the time, a third most of the time and 16 percent all of the time.
• Three-fourths of PAOs said they agreed that monitoring interviews was a good way to make sure their agency’s staff was quoted correctly in the stories.
• Almost 40 percent of PAOs say they use their tapes and notes from the interviews they monitor to dispute misquotes.
• But only 17 percent said they required reporters to review their quotes with them before publication. Fully three-fourths of the PAOs said they did not require pre-publication review.
Reporters’ View On PAO Control
• Seven out of 10 reporters agreed with the statement: “I consider government agency controls over who I interview a form of censorship.”
• 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.”
• Two-thirds of PAOs “believe that controlling media coverage of the agency is a very important part of protecting the agency's reputation”
• Virtually all PAOs agree their “job is to make sure accurate, positive information from my agency is conveyed to the public”.
So that’s where the issue stands.
Here are links to the original survey reports: