For the past two years, Carolyn Carlson has stepped into the media spotlight during the third week…
Georgia (Apr 21, 2014) — For the past two years, Carolyn Carlson has stepped into the media spotlight during the third week of March. An assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State, she has been widely quoted in news media from Washington, D.C. to Cleveland to Buffalo and across the blogosphere, largely a result of national wire service coverage of her research.Link To Website
Part of the reason is Carlson’s affiliation with the national Society of Professional Journalists – SPJ for short – on whose behalf she voluntarily conducts survey research. Part of it is the compelling subject of her surveys: the increasing control of government information officers over what journalists report. The balance is a matter of timing: the annual “Sunshine Week”designated by the profession to call attention to issues related to open government, press freedom and access to information.
Carlson, a former political press secretary and longtime journalist and editor for The Associated Press, Augusta Chronicle and Orlando Sentinel, is one of two academics serving on the 12-member Freedom of Information Committee for the SPJ, the oldest and largest professional organization serving the news media. She also has served as the organization’s national president and as former chair of its Ethics Committee. At Kennesaw State, she teaches advanced reporting classes.
“There was a perception – and we were hearing anecdotally from members – that there was a growing problem with public information officers [public relations people for governmental agencies] becoming too controlling,” Carlson said. “The requests came to our committee to do something about it, and we decided before we go too far down that road, we needed to quantify the problem.”
Since volunteering to conduct the first survey in 2012 of a sample 146 reporters covering federal agencies in Washington, Carlson recently completed the fourth in a series of surveys aimed at identifying and quantifying the problems journalists perceived. Assisting her in the research projects were Kennesaw State graduate research assistants Lindsay Tolkoff, Roberta Jackson and Megan Roy, who share bylines in the reports.
The initial survey confirmed reporters’ perceptions that PIOs of federal agencies were exercising enormous control over the reporting of stories of interest to the public, especially restricting them from interviewing agency employees for stories, Carlson said.
“We were able to document that it was a significant problem for reporters and that there was a tremendous amount of frustration about it,” she said. “We saw evidence of it both in the responses to the survey questions and in the open-ended comments.”
After the results of Carlson’s first survey were released during Sunshine Week of 2012, the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC), a trade association of PIOs, invited her to its 2012 national conference to discuss the survey. As a result, the organization asked her to survey its members – to get their side of the story.
That survey was conducted in late 2012 and its results released in 2013. Its primary finding, Carlson explained, was that PIOs are dedicated to getting pubic information out to the public, but they are also dedicated to making sure only positive stories about their agencies are getting out.
“This is a fundamental conflict with reporters’ basic role as watchdogs over government,” said Carlson, noting that there is nothing new about the basic conflict. “What we are finding is that PIOs are becoming much more creative in trying to control the message.”
For example, she said, PIOs say they routinely restrict agency employees from talking to media and require employees to forward all media inquiries to the PIO office. If employees fail to comply, their jobs may be threatened. If a reporter circumvents the PIO and manages to talk to an employee, the reporter can be banned from any further access to agency officials. PIOs also reported that they often monitor interviews between agency employees and reporters and will, on occasion, take over the interview and answer the question. In fact, two-thirds of the PIOs surveyed believed it was their duty to monitor press interviews with employees and some 40 percent reported that they had blocked reporters because they didn’t like what the reporters had written.
“This is not right and it’s frightening,” Carlson concluded. “When interviews are monitored, the person being interviewed may be intimidated and will not say what they think or know to be the truth. The reporter is not getting a candid response. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be done and not the way it always has been done. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon.”
NAGC officials also suggested that Carlson survey reporters who cover local and state government to determine if they held the same perceptions as those who cover federal agencies. Carlson’s SPJ committee agreed that it was important to know if the problems and perceptions had filtered down to local reporters.
Around the same time, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee met jointly in Washington with members of the Education Writers Association (EWA), whose members primarily cover K-12 education systems and private colleges. They reported that laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) were being used to justify withholding information from the public that was never intended to be shielded by the law. Carlson volunteered once again to survey EWA members to document their level of concern.
“We ended up with 20 pages of open-ended comments, and many of the incidents they referenced were appalling,” Carlson said, citing reporters’ inability to get access to a school’s lunch menu or the schedule for a planned Easter egg hunt. “When people do that, it makes you wonder when they do use FERPA correctly. Reporters are used to exemptions to the open meetings and open records laws and other laws that make things private. That’s not the issue. What we’re concerned about is when you can’t even talk to the people who are doing the work of the government.”
After she finished with the EWA survey, Carlson volunteered to follow through on the requests to survey reporters who cover local and state government. From a list of 16,000 reporters supplied by the SPJ, she drew a random sample of 3,500. From that sample, 445 reporters responded, confirming that the problems with PIO interference and lack of access to sources and information had filtered down to local reporting of government.
More than three-fourths of the local reporters and 76 percent of the education writers agreed with the statement that they believed the public was not getting what it needs because of controls by PIOs. Eighty-three percent said they predict the conditions would get worse over the next five years.
Data from that survey, as well as that collected in the survey of education writers, was released amid a media flurry during the March 2014 Sunshine Week activities in Washington, D.C. Carlson and other SPJ officials appeared on a panel sponsored by the National Press Club, which also has been active in the push for freedom of information,transparency and government openness.
As Carlson awaits word of whether a recently submitted journal article based on her findings will be published, she says she will continue her work with the SPJ on behalf of its members. She says a national meeting is scheduled for fall 2014 in Nashville, Tenn.
“We’ll decide then where we go from here,” she said. “It’s such an important issue for a democracy. It’s really about the public getting information it needs.”
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-- Sabbaye McGriff
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.