Tim Whyte | Government’s Info Barriers

Tim Whyte
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In addition to my “day job” here at The Signal, I teach journalism part-time at Cal State Northridge — a part-time gig I’ve had since 1998. Back then, I used to tell my students there were two kinds of interviews: In person or on the phone.  

In person, then and now, was the most effective way to interview someone. You get a natural, spoken response to a question that will translate in a more human way to your copy. You can also observe body language, look someone in the eye and observe their surroundings. These things are important, especially when asking hard questions of government officials, or trying to add a human interest connection to a story. 

By phone was second-best — you could still ask someone a question and obtain their natural answer to it. But you lose the visual side of it, and the ability to measure the “temperature in the room,” so to speak. But the phone, then and now, was great for most of the “on the fly” interviews when covering news in a fast-paced environment. 

Then as now, we often did battle with public information officers — often a misnomer, as they can sometimes be more aptly described as public information obstruction officers. 

Starting almost immediately after I taught my first journalism class in 1998, the picture of interviewing started to change, and it evolved to where we are now. Here, in order from best to worst, are the current methods for journalists to conduct interviews, ranked by their effectiveness in providing readers the clearest, least-obstructed view of matters of public interest: 

In person: Not always practical. With the exception of staged press conferences, event coverage or long-form feature interviews, it can be too time-consuming for most daily reporting. But still the best way to get a real story with a real human connection, and honest answers provided in language that doesn’t read or sound as if it’s been vetted and rehearsed to death. 

Video chat: Logistically easier, with some of the benefits of being in person. But really, other than FaceTime with your kids, or the occasional Zoom session, most electronic conversations are still voice-only, especially when working on the fly. 

Phone: Reliable. Easy. Fast. Pound for pound, probably the most efficient method for most daily reporting. 

Chat, email or text: Not really an interview at all. You’re going to get a sanitized, pre-written statement that has been massaged by a PR flak. Not in the readers’ or the journalists’ best interests, unless you’re just looking for a quick confirmation of a fact or an answer to a yes-or-no question. 

And now, listed in order, are the same four “interview” methods as currently preferred by government and business officials everywhere, in THEIR order of preference: 

Chat, email or text: They control the message. They want to send you a press release or they want you to send “interview” questions in advance so they can carefully ponder them, have a team of flaks compose answers, and send you the most sanitized, least-human, least-responsive, “safest” answers possible. 

Everything else. 

I’ve been grumbling about it for years, except during the 11 years when I worked in PR. Then, it WORKED for me. I was reminded of it this week by a CalMatters article, “A failure to communicate: California government cuts back press access.” 

The article recounts multiple instances of state government putting up barriers and rendering news coverage as more distant from the truth, and information more distant from readers. It’s become exacerbated since the onset of COVID-19, when “work from home” became an excuse for everyone. 

CalMatters reported: “Last month, the Capitol Correspondents Association of California, which represents journalists who cover the state Capitol and advocates for improved press access, distributed guidelines to its members about how to handle some of the increasingly common hurdles they encounter, including government agencies asking for questions in advance and refusing to attribute information to their spokespeople. Ashley Zavala, president of the correspondents association who covers state government and politics for Sacramento television station KCRA, said the extraordinary step was prompted by years of complaints from Capitol press about problems reporting on Gov. Gavin Newsom, his administration and the Legislature. These have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which accelerated a shift to digital communication that has transformed how the state government discloses its work.” 

The story said media outlets across the state have reported “rejected interview requests, challenges obtaining public records or the lack of any official response in their stories.” 

The CalMatters story details specific instances in which government agencies have refused to provide public information, demanded that questions be emailed in advance, refused to answer questions about matters of public interest, sandbagged the media by releasing information on a weekend when no one would be available to respond — or, worse, waiting until after a story was published to respond at all. 

Here at The Signal, we don’t routinely engage in direct coverage of the state Capitol. We’re local. But all of this rings true. I’m not going to name names here, but every day we run into a “public information officer” or other government official from one agency or another who will only answer questions by email, or who runs interference to keep us from talking to the appropriate government source, or who slow-walks our requests for public information.  

You see a lot of press releases, and quotes from press releases, in the news, here and in other media. Some of that is helpful, practical and time-saving for both sides. For some stories — say, a routine announcement or a story on an upcoming event — the “prepared statement” will suffice just fine, thanks. 

But all too often, when we have serious, legitimate questions to ask, we run into that roadblock: “Email me your questions and we’ll send you our answers.” Whenever we can, we push back. And if they still refuse to talk or provide answers, or they stick to their guns and agree only to provide their canned, carefully massaged answers in written form, we say so.  

My broader concern, though, is this: As these methods continue to become more and more ingrained, journalists in general — particularly the younger ones coming up through the ranks who’ve never seen it done any other way — will come to accept it as the “normal” way of doing journalism’s business.  

That will leave readers less informed, and governments less accountable to the public they supposedly serve. 

And that’s not good for anyone — except the politicians. 

Tim Whyte is the editor of The Signal. For the full CalMatters story, go to bit.ly/3MH8pHB.

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