Journalists' access meets news management (or is it censorship?)

Tools of the "corporate journalists'" trade.

Tools of the "corporate journalists'" trade.

There's a great and long-running debate raging over reporters' access to government officials.

Reporters feel press officers (in government these are referred to Public Affairs Officials or Public Information Officers) hinder their access to information. Press officers and government officials see it as managing the message and the accuracy of information.

Columbia Journalism Review recently had a solid overview of both sides in a recent blog post ("Hacks vs. flacks: Do public affairs offices get in the way?" August 14, 2013).

For the journalists, freelance reporter Kathryn Foxhall:

“It is massive, pernicious censorship that is now a cultural norm. It’s people in power stopping the flow of information to the public according to their own ideas and desires.”

For the press officers, Tony Fratto, former deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush:

“It is really, really rare to find really good reporters with the length of time on a beat it takes to master that beat."

Both are right. In part.

I've been lucky to be on both sides. I started writing for a small daily newspaper and then was a reporter/editor for United Press International before becoming a public affairs official for private, not-for-profit health systems. 

Reporters who become "flacks" (as I guess I did!) are said to "go over to the dark side." But those of us who were deeply steeped and trained in journalistic values and ethics see our roles in our organizations as "corporate journalists" — we apply the reporter's tools and techniques (and the editor's skepticism) to our jobs. This means both playing devil's advocate within our organizations and sussing out the truth.

Our job is not to deny access — it is to facilitate access and ensure accuracy.

"Corporate journalists" work by a few simple rules:

  1. Never lie.
  2. Answer questions as openly and honestly as possible.
  3. Provide context and understanding.

Based on my journalism training at Boston University and Ohio Wesleyan University — and my real world newsroom experience at UPI — these are the same rules as a "real" journalist.

Which brings us to accountability. 

Organizations need to be held accountable — health care is going through its own accountability evolution as we speak. But reporters also need to be held accountable so that news is reported accurately, without sensation, and within the proper context.

People's lives and livelihoods are at stake. When a mistake is made, there is usually not malicious intent nor gross incompetence or negligence. But often stories get reported that way, which can cause the public to lose confidence in an institution. When the mistake is egregious, or even intentional, organizations need to own up to it.

Transparency is important. So is fairness. Taking the time to report accurately, with a solid understanding of a situation's context, will gain reporters more respect (and future access) and will better serve the public good.