When Censorship Becomes a Cultural Norm

by: Kathryn Foxhall posted: 5/16/2014 Over about the last 20 years, agencies—public and…

Georgia (May 20, 2014) — by: Kathryn Foxhall


Link To Article


On a historic basis, the widespread use of these barriers is new and it’s radical. On the federal level, at least, most agencies prior to the last two administrations did not do this.      

 It’s censorship that’s now a cultural norm. It comes from the same motivations and has the same type impact as censorship everywhere. It’s nearly ubiquitous in Washington, but from reports it’s happening in many other areas as well.  

As years have passed with little push back from journalists, agencies have begun to block requested interviews altogether, if they so wish.             

What journalists don’t want to face is that the restraints are effective, like censorship in other countries, despite reporters’ occasional triumphs. With millions of people blocked from talking to reporters at all or at least not without the public information “guards” tracking and monitoring them, journalists are losing perspectives and important stories regularly.             
In one example out of thousands, the New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.  …  

Last year a reporter asked about important rules for ClinicalTrials.gov, the registry for medical studies, ironically meant to make medical research more transparent. Five years after Congress had called for them, the rules had not come out.             

The Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health just said no. No one would talk about it.             
And they got offended when the reporter persisted.  

Note the control here: Reporters must go back to the same people for permission to speak to someone for a future story. So if they know what is good for their paycheck, they take what little the agencies give them—toxic to public understanding though it may be—and live to interview another day.             

Such power can’t exist and go unused: In a 2013 survey of public information officers, sponsored in part by the National Association of Government Communicators and conducted by Dr. Carolyn S. Carlson, assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University, 40 percent of PIOs admitted they had blocked certain reporters because of “problems” they had with their previous stories. Three years ago an HHS PIO informed a room full of reporters he had told his whole staff to ignore a certain reporter.   …    

In another survey by Carlson released this March and sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, more than half of local reporters from across the country said they had been prohibited by PIOs from interviewing agency employees at least some of the time and 10 percent said most of the time (see chart A).   


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu