Do Federal Communicators Roadblock the Media? NAGC Weighs In

NAGC Director of Professional Development John Verrico weighed in on the recent survey by the Society of Professional Journalists that revealed that reporters feel that federal public affairs officers hinder their efforts to report on government issues. In a March 12 article in Government Executive, Verrico provided the following response:

“Government public affairs personnel should be considered a
journalist’s best friend. Our role is that of a facilitator, not a
blockade to a story. It is in the best interests of both of
us to see that a reporter gets the information he or she needs in order
to write an accurate account of whatever the issue may be. The luxury of
having a dedicated beat reporter has become rare, so government
spokespersons are working with general assignment reporters more often
than not. For a reporter just coming onto a topic for the first time, it
is beneficial to have someone to turn to for clarity and context that
may not be apparent in a subject-matter-expert’s initial response to a
question. It does no one any good if a story is inaccurate or incomplete
or if the information is misunderstood.”

What is your response to this survey, and what steps do you take to ensure that the media has access to quick and accurate information? How do you communicate your protocol to media to help them understand that you aren’t trying to block their access to information?

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Jon P. Bird

I can say from my prior experience as a military PAO that the best service I offered was probably the linking up of a subject matter expert to add details and additional credibility to whatever our “talking head” was saying at the time.

Michelle Bouchard

I have to ask what were the motives of those who responded. Only about 1/7th of the pool responded and I can probably name some of the harshest critics. We have all requests funneled through our PAO because most employees don’t want to talk to reporters and those we ask have said no. We do give the technical experts the option and most have declined the offer. We also monitor interviews to make sure the information is correct. We also require prior approval to interviews because the person they want to interview may not want to talk to them. We do explain our reasons for what we do to reporters and, thankfully, only a very few have accused us of censorship.

We have had several issues in the past where a reporter did not understand the technical information. The worst case was when we were accused of domestic spying because we use USGS maps to prove fraud at trial. Sometimes the story just isn’t there and we are accused of hiding something. We have a reporter now who frequently goes around us and contacts technical staff to try to prove our program is costing taxpayers more than we are reporting. Our entire budget and expenses are published and available to the public. He has been given this information several times but he keeps harassing our techinical staff trying to get information that just isn’t there. PAO had to get involved and we try to manage him so the technical staff can get their work done.

There may be censhorship in other agencies but we do our best to help the media get the truth out there, not spin or a “big bad government” story when the facts just don’t support the assumptions.