Sunday, August 11, 2013

Peterson National Press Club Presentation

by Linda Peterson
chair, Society of Professional Journalists 
Freedom of Information Committee

Carolyn and Kathryn have done a great job covering what’s going on at a federal level, but this problem is not trickling, but pouring down to the states and to local communities across the country.
Back in the states, we don’t like to believe that it all begins in Washington. But sometimes it’s true. Like in this case.
These policies may have begun here, but they’ve found their way down to the smallest communities in this nation. As the managing editor of a group of 8 community papers in the Salt Lake City suburbs, I see the same policies too often in my neck of the woods.
I don’t know if it’s because they like to follow Big Brother, or because they figure “Well, they’re getting away with it in Washington; why can’t we here?” but some of the smallest cities in the nation now have their own PAOs or people who serve that function as a part of their jobs.
It’s crazy when the feds stonewall you, but it’s even crazier when the PAO of a city of 10,000 does it.
After all, why would the city be so invested in a $100,000 road repair that they make you go through a PAO to get information about the project? And what does a PAO know about road base, correct temperatures and conditions for laying it down, exactly where the work is being done and how long it’s going to take? Nothing! So, almost everything you ask for you get secondhand, coming from the mouth of someone who knows almost nothing about the information you’re trying to get to your readers.
Information that is really important to the people who live on that street and to others who drive on it.
And it’s even crazier when the PAO insists on being present at the interview with the engineer. If the engineer misspeaks would the PAO even know anyway? But that’s what happens sometimes.
I work with several PAOs who understand that, who get out of the way so I can get to the people who have the information. They understand that government isn’t a private entity, that it must be transparent.
But many don’t. They see their job as managing the information and the reporters.
This issue is not reporters whining that PAOs are making their job harder. It actually would be a whole lot easier just to take what the PAO tells you and write it as fact.
Maybe that’s why a lot of city officials and PAOs tell me: “None of the other media outlets are complaining about this. You’re the only one. They’re all just fine talking just to the PAO.”
That’s why my papers are better, I tell them. We’re not necessarily better writers, but we have better, more detailed information and therefore, our stories are better.
Although I’m not a lawyer, I believe my readers deserve and are expecting from me, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Or as close to it as I can get.
That’s why I wouldn’t give in to the mayor and PAO who asked me to hire a reporter candidate that they “liked more, who we found out later was an employee of the PR firm that was doing a branding campaign for that city.
I can’t get the truth or anywhere near the whole truth when I have to email the PAO a list of questions for the employee I need to talk to and have the PIO (not the employee) respond to those questions by email – like one city expected me to do.
I don’t think my reporters should, as a “professional courtesy,” call and tell a city’s PAO what stories she’s working on that week – like another city’s  PAO expected them to do.
There are many instances like these happening on a daily basis across our country. Stories like this that are still shocking or ridiculous on a local level but that are commonplace on a federal level. “That’s just the way it is,” many reporters say. “Deal with it” is what many government officials say.
But why should we? Why shouldn’t we push for more? Why shouldn’t we be able to talk directly to those who do the everyday tasks of taking care of our health, safety and welfare?
 We live in the Information Age. The old adage could easily be changed to “Information is power,” and whoever has the information has the power. I believe in the case of government, the public should have that power, and that journalists are the conduit for that power.
In the past, government viewed interaction with the media as a necessary evil; they didn’t want to do it but it was expected of them.
As such, reporters could dig into the stories they covered, find the facts, work to uncover the details that made a difference to their readers.
They could talk directly to elected officials, those accountable individuals who their readers voted for – or not – who would answer to them.
Nobody ever voted for a PAO. No PAO, as yet, has a formal vote on city, state or federal business – so why does government think the public should be fine hearing from them all the time, instead of the people they elected?
And governments and PAOs often end up with ridiculous consequences, as in the situation this spring when a city parks and rec. person refused to give me the time of the Easter egg hunt because they had been instructed not to talk to me. I almost got the time wrong – which would’ve meant hundreds of irate parents and crying kids descending on City Hall because they missed the festivities.  And all because a PAO got over-enthusiastic.
This silly example aside, there’s all kinds of information that the public needs to know and should know that never makes it past the PAOs.
Whether it’s the best of intentions, ignorance of what facts matter, job security or something else, it doesn’t matter.
My reporters and I are always going to try to go around the PAO to get to the people with the information because often, PAOs don’t have it or enough of it. It’s often a very difficult task that takes time and persistence – a task that should never have to be in the first place – but often the only way to get to the information.
Sometimes, even with all of our efforts, the PAO blockades are just too effective. We can’t get through and even the best of us have to go with the official line and the scraps we can dig up.
It’s not the complete story – it’s the best we can do. But sometimes, as we all know, the official story isn’t the real story. There were no weapons of mass destruction ever found in Iraq.
But we can’t give up, we can’t give in. This is too important.
Whatever PAOs do, we can’t stop searching got the truth.
That’s what my readers expect. And in this, the United States of America, Land of the Free, that’s what they’re going to get.
But before long, if things don’t change, we may be the only ones out there doing it.

“Singing with one voice”
Government doesn’t just make policy. It reaches into every area of our lives: our jobs, our homes, our schools, even our bedrooms. We need to know and understand what it’s doing and why. Most of the time that information doesn’t come from a PAO.
People have rights, government doesn’t.
Encouraging and requiring – there’s essentially no difference. Govt. employees are expected to be part of the funnel. Most of the time they’re usually not going to stick their necks out and incur the wrath of their bosses.
The problem is the EXPECTATION that they go through the PAOs.

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