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State of Gov-Media Relations: Irreconcilable Differences?

If this were a State of the Union address, the takeaway may appear disheartening: the state of government-media relations is not strong. In fact, it never has been a harmonious relationship and appears to be getting worse due to a variety of factors.

All government employees, as well as the general public, should understand the essence of what lies beneath the surface here. If the government-media relationship were a marriage, there could well be grounds for divorce based on irreconcilable differences.

Watchdog — Not Lapdog

The Founding Fathers most likely intended the news media to be a watchdog — not a lapdog — on government and industry malfeasance. That is a fundamental aspect of the Constitutional guarantee to freedom of the press, as enshrined in the First Amendment. It is what separates a free and independent news media from the auspices of State control that is commonplace in communist and authoritarian regimes worldwide.

However, the fact is that American government-media relations have historically been rocky. This was the case before and after the invention of an advanced printing press during the Industrial Revolution. During the late 1890s, newspapers were accused of “yellow journalism”. In the early 20th century, investigative reporters were dubbed “muckrakers”.

During the Watergate era, the Nixon Administration lashed out at the press, castigating the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism”. In fact, journalists still have one of the lowest public approval ratings of any profession.

The truth is — for better or worse — that the often adversarial nature of the government-media relationship is ingrained in the very practice of American journalism. Ironically, the back and forth, tug-of-war, cat and mouse interaction between the government and media is an integral aspect of a functionally effective free press in a democratic society.

The question is to what extent does adversarial become abusive and self-defeating to the goal of providing accurate and timely information to the public? Where are the new lines drawn between good and bad journalism?

Journalists and government communicators should try to reach some semblance of agreement, if at all possible, on the following questions which will define their relationship in the digital age:

1) Where to draw the line between a beneficial media watchdog and a pernicious pitbull?

2) Where to draw the line between full government transparency versus flackery and spin?

Blurry Lines

As the new media landscape continues to evolve in unforeseen ways, traditionally accepted lines of distinction have become more blurry. Yes, there is good journalism out there, but it’s just harder to find.

Today’s never ending 24/7 news cycle lends itself to a “shoot first, ask questions later” media mentality. Advancements in online, digital and mobile technology have led some media outlets to break news even before key facts are known — regardless of objectivity.

Therefore, getting a story out first may increasingly take precedence over getting a story out correctly. Why? To beat the circus-like competition associated with the morphing of news and entertainment into “infotainment”.

The bottom line still comes down to ratings and revenue, albeit to a greater extent today because corporate America owns, operates and influences major media outlets nationwide as never before — ranging from old media to new media.

Conundrum for Gov Communicators

The new media environment is arguably more problematic for today’s government communicators than the old media climate of the prior century. The goal of providing accurate and timely information to better inform the citizenry may be compromised by 21st century media “muckrakers” who practice their own brand of “yellow journalism.”

This can leave government communicators in a conundrum.

With the rise of new media and the merging of news, opinion and entertainment, even the most exemplary and well executed government communications plans won’t necessarily produce the intended results — particularly if reporters reject time-honored journalism and ethical standards.

Moreover, even the best government spokespeople may not succeed in getting their agency’s message out if today’s journalists are biased from the outset against government as an institution, or base their reporting on the whims of the “Blogosphere” and online chatter.

Wild West of Journalism?

Therefore, government communicators arguably have an even more critical role to play today by getting the truth out in an unfiltered fashion; an increasing challenge. One answer may be maximizing the use of social media platforms to bypass traditional media and engage citizens/stakeholders directly.

In essence, today’s media rules and standards are more fluid than ever and may resemble the Wild West of journalism compared to the past two centuries. In short, too often anything goes and there’s little or no media accountability.

This problematic development in 21st century journalism has unintended consequences for government communicators, the media and news consumers alike.

Also check out:

Talking to Reporters: Ten Tips

Facebook & Free Speech

Conducting Media Interviews: Ten Tips

Media Relations: Shaping the Story

DBG

* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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John Verrico

There are many factors to be considered in this discussion of relations between government communicators and the media. I’d like to bring up the following for discussion:

1. The relationship between govermnent and the press need not be adversarial in order for both to serve their respective functions. The comment that the media was establiashed as a “watchdog on government” makes an assumption that the government is doing something wrong and needs a watchdog. It is this very attitude that causes a rift between the two and inhibits the ability to develop trustful relationships. I am not saying there should be blind trust, but the baseline should not be one of mistrust.

2. The changes in media and the new media environment have impacted the ability for government communicators to develop working relationships with the press. For the most part, there are few “beat reporters” anymore that stay with a media outlet and a beat. More often than not, government communicators are dealing with general assignment reporters who do not know or have time to learn the deep background of an issue. This is where I have encountered the most inaccuracies or misrepresentations of facts — more so than the infiltration of opinions, agendas and infotainment into the stories. Although there certainly has been a great deal of story tainting from those aspects as well.

3. Individual personalities and styles aside, there are differences in the way government spokespersons approach media relations, depending on the agency they work for and whether they are career government employees or political appointees. Differences in priorities, messaging strategies and policies change the landscape of access to government information. This certainly impacts the way the media treats government sourced information.

Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists conducted a survey of reporters about their interactions with federal spokespersons. The results weren’t very complimentary and, in fact, the general opinion was that public affairs officers were somewhat obstructive to the free access to government information and personnel.

Read this article in Government Executive magazine about the SPJ survey and comments from the National Association of Government Communicators:

http://www.govexec.com/management/2012/03/agencies-restrict-media-access-survey-journalists-finds/41440/

Last month, working with the same authors of the SPJ survey from Kennesaw (Ga.) State University and the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, NAGC reached out to federal, state, and municipal government spokespersons about their relationships with media. Results of that survey are being analyzed and will be presented at the National Association of Government Communicators annual Communications School to be held April 16-19 in Arlington, VA. http://www.nagconline.org

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David B. Grinberg

Thank you very much, John, for sharing your informative and insightful perspectives. I agree with you to a large extent on all of the points you make:

1) The gov-media relationship does not necessarily have to be adversarial. However, the overwhelming majority of news stories about government are negative, which create tension between the two sides.

Moreover, the media and government have different agendas and usually don’t see eye-to-eye on key issues of interest. Reporters almost always want more info than gov communicators are prepared or authorized to provide, which is one big reason why FOIA requests have become so popular. Also, even when reporters excerise due diligence and strive for objectivity, officious editors may write sensational headlines or resort to questionable editing or rewriting to create contentious copy – which results in more bad vibes and lack of trust among gov communicators.

Further, even if the so-called baseline is not one of mistrust, it should at least be trust-but-verify. Yet the verification process by its very nature lends itself to a perception of mistrust, whether intentional or not. Additionally, most reporters focus primarily on conflict within government and what’s wrong with Uncle Sam, rather than what’s right and good about the work of government.

As a former reporter and student of journalism (prior to my gov career), I recall two popular media mantras which spave the way for adversarial relations: “If it bleeds, it leads” and “Sensationalism sells.” Thus, while it’s certainly possible for govies and journos to have a trustful and open relationship, that appears to be less of the norm and more of the exception. All of the aforementioned factors lay the foundation for an adversarial relationship.

Nevertheless, I have had many positive relationships over the years with reporters at major media outlets. But creating and maintaining positive media relations takes time, effort, persistence and patience – all of which seem to be in short supply with the rise of digital, mobile and social media platforms.

2) Continuing on that last point, I agree with you, John, that “changes in media and the new media environment have impacted the ability for government communicators to develop working relationships with the press.” Further, you make an excellent point about there being fewer and fewer gov beat reporters these days, especially those covering non-Cabinet level agencies. As you note, the new normal means that general assignment reporters are covering too many agencies without the necessary time and scope of knowledge. These reporters often have a superficial understanding, at best, about what they are reporting on.

This leaves gov communicators having to expend precious time and energy hand-holding reporters every step of the way. Many reporters covering government today neither trust nor verify, which should be the minimal baseline. This makes the job of gov communicators even more painstaking and frustrating.

3) I concur with you, John, that different gov spokespersons have their own unique styles and techniques. Some of us are more effective than others in smoothing over relations, to the extent possible, to foster mutualy beneficial interactions with reporters. However, as you point out regarding the SPJ survey of reporters: “The results weren’t very complimentary and, in fact, the general opinion was that public affairs officers were somewhat obstructive to the free access to government information and personnel.”

Like you, John, I look forward to the results of the pending NAGC survey you mentioned. However, regardless of the results, it’s important to keep in mind that surveys and polls merely represent a snapshot in time – while gov-media relations are fluid, especially in today’s new media environment. Surveys only captures a small slice of a large pie, and therefore may be subject to errors or misrepresentations of an entire industry.

Again, John, your valuable views and comments are most helpful and most appreciated. I second your motion to have a larger discussion/debate on these and similar issues. Hopefully, other practitioners will chime in to expand this important discussion.

DBG

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David B. Grinberg

Government agencies deserve praise for adopting uniquely tailored, mission-based communications strategies. The goal of these strategies is to attain press coverage that better educates and informs the public at large. Citizens ought to know as much about good government as any real or perceived malfeasance portrayed in the media.
One problem is that journalists have conflicting agendas which usually entail manufacturing conflict. Although this has always been the case to some extent, it has become more pronounced since the turn of the century. So what’s behind the conspicuous shift? Two words: corporate greed.
Today’s corporate titans own many U.S.-based news organizations, which has not always been the case. Corporate ownership hinders an independent press by often increasing pressure on journalists to obtain better ratings and higher revenue at the expense of sound journalism.
More and more, there appears to be less and less of a firewall between the C-suite and its news subsidiaries. This conflict of interest is deftly displayed in HBO’s original series, The Newsroom. Thus, even before any substantive media interaction with government occurs, reporters may already be prone to biased, sensational, or factually incorrect reporting to boost ratings and revenue for profit-driven CEOs corporate boards.
To wit: the overwhelming majority of media reports about government continue to be negative and scandal-driven, from GSA to TSA to CIA personnel, etc. The list goes on and unjustified media conspiracy theories about government abound.
Just take a look at today’s saturation 24/7 media coverage of former CIA Director, General David Petraeus.

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David B. Grinberg

The following comment is being cross-posted from the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC) group on LinkedIn (with the permission of Ms. Guthrie):

Deborah Guthrie • “The increasing demand for information to reach community members by government officials, residents, and staff drive the 24/7 conundrum of what to report and how much to report. Fact checking is a must but often times I witness reporters who are in such a hurry to get the best story out that the accurate story suffers. When government officials lack patience with impatient and often uninformed reporters, what is printed is a result of two agencies that have been downsized, overworked, and under paid. The stress of reporting is only increasing with the demands of being plugged in to news like the blood running through our veins. It’s a constant feed that needs constant flow with no shortage of info. If you are a news junkie, it’s the perfect fix. If your government is transparent, it’s a perfect match. If not, those irreconcilable differences are a hard line to a hard crash.”

LINK

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David B. Grinberg

NAGC link

The following comment is being cross-posted from the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC) group on LinkedIn (with the permission of Mr. Kuhn):

Ellery Kuhn • “Some years ago, during a third-party candidacy for Lieutenant Governor, I was able to attract the attention of a major media reporter who was writing a significant piece on a ballot measure reducing the powers of the office, noting I was the only candidate in that election opposing the measure, despite it’s dramatic impact on the constitutional office in question. Despite it’s relevance the reporter’s editor killed the story (reducing it to a few lines) basically because it would have reflected unfavorably on the mainstream, and the candidacy of the prefered major-party aspirant in particular. So, please don’t forget that the “prone-ness” of journalism can have a different dimension entirely. In this instance, the political bias was not a conspiracy.”

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David B. Grinberg

Another comment cross-posted with permission from the NAGC group discussion on LinkedIn:

John Verrico • “When I worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources back in the early 1990s, there was a rash of alcohol-related boat accidents on Maryland’s rivers and lakes and on the Chesapeake Bay. We did a huge awareness push on the dangers of drunk boating and the uniquely hostile and unforgiving environment of an accident on the water. The Natural Resources Police stepped up drunk boating enforcement and every Monday I would have a stack of arrest reports on my desk from the weekend. I’d put together a release for the press and get the stories out to the local papers and radio stations. One newspaper refused to publish anything about drunk boating. The editor claimed that DNR was unfairly targetting people just out having a good time in the privacy of their own boat. In fact, she sicced her police beat reporter on us to write a negative piece about what we were doing. We took the reporter for a ride along with our police one weekend. He got to see, first hand, the dangerous manuevers that drunk boaters were doing out on the water, including seeing a collision a boater had with the pier. In a single shift, the reporter witnessed nearly a dozen arrests and even wound up on a search and rescue for a drunk who had fallen overboard. We were completely open and accessible, fully candid and transparent in our dealing with the reporter – who could see for himself that we didn’t even approach a boater who wasn’t displaying erratic behavior. There was certainly enought to do just with the dangerous ones, let alone spend time drunk-checking everyone on the water as we were assuced of doing. The result was that the reporter could not possibly write the negative piece his editor wanted and wrote an extremely supportive one instead. The editor didn’t like the piece and decided to kill it altogether. With a little research, we discovered that a friend of the editor’s had been one of the early arrestees. Nothing we could do about a bias like that. Ultimately, instead of a positive story coming out of this, there was none at all. Had we not be completely open and honest, however, there would certainly have been a very negative story. Some time you just have to take the wins where you can. By the way, the very positive story did ultimately make it to press! It just showed up in another paper with a different reporter’s byline.”

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