United States Project

How to deal with obstructive public information officers? Challenge them.

May 20, 2019

On April 18, Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey announced his intention to make his city the first to ban its police officers from undertaking “warrior-style” training. After the police union announced that it would continue to offer the trainings anyway a few days later, I set out to interview Chief Medaria Arradondo.

Like many government organizations, the Minneapolis Police Department has a public information officer (PIO). In response to an email request, the PIO said that the chief was too busy for an interview, but that I could email him a list of questions as an alternative. I declined; email interviews preclude the dynamic qualities of an in-person interview, and can provide cover for story subjects to craft protective messages with their public relations advisers.

I deal with dozens of reporters a week who provide written questions for answering,” the PIO replied. “No one has had journalistic issues with it.” I attempted to go around him, but, at every turn, I was informed that all communication had to go through the PIO. I didn’t fare much better with the mayor’s office: after multiple calls and email follow-ups with his press secretary and other members of his communication team, I was provided with a two-sentence statement on the police union’s defiance.

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The resulting story—about the way that Minneapolis residents are policed, reported and written as a former Minneapolis cop was tried and ultimately convicted for a 2017 killing that has left residents “more concerned than ever over police conduct”—was written without the two major public officials at its center answering a single question.

That’s a straight refusal to answer, and that’s what you need to call it,” Carolyn Carlson, a retired journalist, professor, and former president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), says. Carlson, whose academic research focused on public information officers, adds, “They try to cloak it like they’re being cooperative when they’re not.”

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The Public Information Officer is a frequently obstructive mechanism thinly veiled by a helpful sounding title. PIO-approved comments shape the narratives of their news coverage across the country on matters that range from the mundane to the extremely consequential.

In a 2014 survey of political and general assignment reporters by Carlson and SPJ, most respondents said the amount of control exerted by PIOs had been increasing and was only getting worse. A 2015 survey uncovered that 74.2 percent of science writers were routinely required to get approval from PIOs to interview employees some, most, or all of the time. A 2016 survey of police reporters found that 54.8 percent of respondents, the majority of whom work as full-time reporters for small and mid-sized papers, were only allowed to interview police chiefs “some of the time” or “rarely.” Fifty-seven percent said that they were prevented by PIOs from interviewing officers or investigators in a timely manner “some of the time,” “most of the time,” or “all of the time.”

In Carlson’s survey of PIOs themselves, 65.9 percent felt some obligation to “supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with members of my agency’s staff.” Those PIOs, Carlson says, “were pretty open that one of their top priorities, if not their top priority, is to represent their agencies in a positive way, which is a fundamentally different objective to what reporters are trying to do.”

The Public Information Officer is a frequently obstructive mechanism thinly veiled by a helpful sounding title. PIO-approved comments shape the narratives of their news coverage across the country on matters that range from the mundane to the extremely consequential.

Not every PIO works to obstruct journalists, of course. But public-relations professionals now outnumber journalists at a rate of six to one, so even a small number of bad actors can have a suffocating effect on the press. “Many journalists don’t know anything except [going] through PIO offices,” Kathryn Foxhall, a veteran healthcare writer on the DC scene, says. Journalists face cultural pressures to get what stories they can on tight deadlines, and those legacy publications that set industry standards don’t always push back on PIOs in their reporting or their coverage—factors Foxhall believes contribute to reporter acquiescence.

Foxhall has made monitoring the ways public information officers stymie journalism something of her life’s work, rounding up examples of PIO interference for the SPJ. Allowing PIOs to decide who journalists interview “has just choked the dynamic process of free speech to the point that it’s not recognizable and it’s just extraordinarily dangerous,” she says, for journalists’ ability to report the truth and to hold powerful people and institutions accountable to it.

“Any reporter you talk to would tell you we’ve had a hard time in general getting public records from the city of Cleveland,” Rachel Dissell, a reporter at The Plain Dealer, says. Dissell, who was part of a team that covered the prevalence and impact of lead paint on young people in Cleveland, tells CJR it took six months to obtain records from the city on where it had investigated lead paint. During that time, city spokespersons incorrectly claimed that the records weren’t public, then pivoted to telling Dissell’s team that there wasn’t anyone to provide the records in a deliverable format from that in which they were stored, says Dissell. When the Plain Dealer finally got files, they were printouts, which were more difficult to search than electronic files would have been.

“It was clearly an electronic database or another digital format that we could have analyzed,” Dissell says. “Our job is to answer questions and when we ask for information and don’t get it, we have stories that are incomplete or we don’t write them at all, or it takes far longer. Then it’s not timely—and without something timely, the public can’t make a decision on how it feels about something.”

Mike Naymik, a Cleveland.com columnist, wrote in April about his difficulties accessing information via the Cleveland mayor’s communications consultant, calling his experiences “mystifying.”

They ignore most interview requests, appear unprepared to field obvious questions, are not forthcoming on administration controversies, and move at a snail’s pace on public records requests,” he wrote.

Emily Stifler Wolfe, a Montana-based freelance journalist, encountered blockades with sources thanks to PIOs when reporting a story on gendered harassment in the Bureau of Land Management. “A lot [of people] were like, ‘I’ll talk on background, but if you’re going to use anything I need to run it by my PIO,’” Stifler Wolfe recalls.

PIOs are deployed by both public and private entities to control journalists’ inquiries—a practice Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, says is illegal. “In almost every corner, [reporters] on the beat see that people are forbidden from speaking to reporters,” LoMonte says. “It’s a recurring pain point for people on all levels, from the feds”—such as the EPA and the Social Security Administration—“to the smallest counties.”

LoMonte believes journalists stand a better chance of changing the restrictive practice by challenging it rather than accepting canned responses from communication teams, and is working to create a roadmap to help journalists and news organizations do exactly that. His premise rests on an analogy between access to sources and court battles over free speech: to LoMonte, obstructive PIOs are as problematic as gag orders during highly publicized trials. In the latter, LoMonte says, news outlets have successfully demonstrated the importance of access and fought back gag orders; Minneapolis outlets were able to do so during the recent Noor trial.

LoMonte’s advice to journalists facing uncooperative agencies and their PIOs is to get a written copy of the agency’s media policy. See what it actually says and whose signature is on it, he says; public information officers often have little or no authority themselves to enforce the policies they write. “There’s a real legal question as to how enforceable a memo like that is,” he says.

In the meantime, Carlson says journalists should be writing about obstruction by PIOs directly. “When the government is obstructing your ability to get those answers, the public needs to know exactly what they’re doing,” she says. “You have to make it clear early in the story… It’s not that they’re too busy or whatever BS answer they gave you. You have to call it what it is and tell the public what happened.”

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Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based journalist who focuses on lesser-told stories. She writes broadly about cities, politics, culture, economies, business, and travel. You can reach her at www.cinnamon-janzer.com.