Public Information Roadblocks

May 2, 2017

I have this somewhat naïve idea — gained from coming up as a journalist during a simpler time — that it’s my job to act as a principled civic go-between. 

I’m supposed to find out the kind of information that you, as a citizen, need to understand the various institutions that affect your life. And then I’m supposed to communicate that information to you, in a clear, informative and hopefully enjoyable way. That’s my basic job description.

People doing the public's business with public money should be expected to be transparent about what they're doing with that public trust (and that public money).

But it seems there’s a growing number of tactics being used to make sure that my journalistic colleagues and I don’t get a hold of potentially trouble-causing information (what we, in our quaint way, call “facts”).

The main practitioners of this increasingly-elaborate art of evasion are the folks known as “Public Information Officers” or PIOs.

You might think the job of a Public Information Officer would be to dispense public information. And you might think that, as the folks best positioned to convey information to the public, journalists would be exactly the people to whom Public Information Officers would want to dispense that information.

While this is true of many PIOs, for others it seems the last person they want to talk to is a reporter.

For starters, I’m finding many who simply won’t answer their phones. Their preferred means of communication is email. In fact, many respond only to email. I imagine that’s because email allows them to strictly control the communication and — if they find that communication inconvenient — to end it.

A recent example …

I was covering a report from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS). It was an annual list of hospitals in the US that were being fined for scoring in the bottom 25 percent on patient safety. A number of those hospitals were in the JPR listening area.

I called CMMS and asked to speak to someone who could explain the rating system to me and help me understand what these fines were all about. Or rather, I tried to. The fellow I reached in the press office told me I needed to submit a request to their “Media Inquiry” web page. 

So, I went to the page, filled out the form and hit “send.”

I soon got an email from a Public Information Officer. She said they couldn’t set up an interview because of my tight deadline, but she sent me several links to information about the hospital rating program. 

Some of the links were useful, but I really needed to interview someone. For one thing, the links didn’t answer all the questions I had. Also, you can’t push back on a written assertion, or challenge it with contrary facts. Besides, I work for public radio, so a written quote doesn’t really work for me -- I need a voice. 

I sent an email response, saying if my deadline was the issue, I could push it back in order to talk to someone.

Two days later, I got a reply, slamming the door. “We’re not able to provide a phone interview at this time.”

Not that easily deterred, I sent another reply, expressing bewilderment. Am I to understand, I asked, that a federal agency making decisions that affect hospitals in my listeners’ communities is unable to find a spokesperson who can spend 15 minutes on the phone to explain to the taxpayers who fund it why that agency is fining their hospitals?

“Can you please help me understand this?” I asked.

Apparently not, because I never heard from her again.

So, after a few days of being ignored, I called the head PIO listed on the CMMS website. The person answering the phones took a message and assured me the person in charge would get it.

Crickets

By the third time I left a message, it was pretty clear that these people felt no need to respond to my request. I never got an interview and I never got an explanation why.

But that’s the huge, faceless federal bureaucracy. Surely, agencies in the small, friendly state of Oregon would be more responsive, right?

Not necessarily. I recently was reporting on the passage of a national building code specifically for tiny houses, which typically have a hard time meeting standard codes due to their compact size. I wanted to interview someone from the state Building Codes Division about how this was likely to play out in Oregon.

After more than a week of fruitlessly trying to track down someone to talk with, I called the head office and asked if there wasn’t someone, somewhere in the agency who was able to answer questions in an interview.

“It’s not that no one can do it,” I was told. “No one wants to do it.”

Oh … 

From the folks who want me to submit written questions in advance to the folks who want to know who else I’ve spoken to for the story to the folks who want to sit with my source during the interview to the folks who want to approve my story before I air it, it seems the PR professionals are coming up with ever more ways to make it less likely I’m going to get a straight answer out of their client.

Maybe this sounds like whining to you (“My job is sooooo hard! And these people are being mean to me!”). Heck, maybe it is kind of whining.

I just have this perspective that people doing the public’s business with public money should be expected to be transparent about what they’re doing with that public trust (and that public money).

But when “message control” and “crisis avoidance” become the highest priority, even routine inquiries get treated like a threat. 

That may make my job a bit harder. But the real cost is that you as a citizen ends up less-informed about the governments and corporations that so deeply affect your life.

And at a time when wealthy and powerful people and institutions have a growing influence on pretty much everything, it seems to me keeping that power accountable to the people is more important than ever. 

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years. After a stint as JPR’s News Director from 2002 to 2005, Liam covered the environment in Seattle, then reported on European issues from France. He returned to JPR in 2013, turning his talents to covering the stories that are important to the people of this very special region.