Education Reporters Slam Public Information Officers in Survey

By Mark Walsh — March 20, 2014 3 min read
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A survey of education reporters shows that many believe public information officers for school districts and other education organizations often put up barriers to the free flow of information.

The information officers, sometimes at the behest of their superiors, often require advanced approval for reporter interviews with teachers or other employees, frequently monitor such interviews, or bar interviews or other newsgathering efforts altogether, according to the survey conducted on behalf of the Education Writers Association.

The survey of 190 journalist members of EWA, titled “Mediated Access,” shows that they overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that “the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

“The surveyed journalists overwhelmingly reported barriers to getting information because of public information officers, or sometimes school administrators, controlling interviews,” said the survey report by Carolyn S. Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and Megan Roy, a graduate assistant at the university.

The tactics include public information officers who bar interviews of school personnel. One quarter of the respondents said they had faced such prohibitions at least some of the time.

Three quarters of the respondents reported that interview requests to school districts and other organizations such as state and federal departments of education were forwarded to public information officers, who then routed the requests to a particular interview subject.

And half of reporters in the survey said their interviews were monitored by public information officers either in person or over phone interviews at least some of the time.

Despite these challenges, some three quarters of the respondents said they generally had a positive working relationship with the public information officers on their beats.

However, half of the reporters said they had come up with ways to circumvent such barriers, such as by going directly to sources without the consent of the PIO.

“PIOs are a mixed bag,” one reporter said in the survey’s open comment section. “We are often at cross-purposes with this set, but they are sometimes the only people we can get on the phone to facilitate an interview. In that sense, they are a necessary evil.”

Another wrote: “The ‘P’ in PIO seems to stand for ‘prevent’ rather than ‘public.’ Most see their job as keeping reporters from getting information.”

Another reporter had largely positive experiences. “In general, the school system PIO I work with now is the most open one I have ever had,” the respondent wrote. “She doesn’t seek to stop us from doing stories on anything, even topics that reflect negatively on the school system.”

Emily Richmond, EWA’s public editor, said in a statement accompanying the release of the report that “many reporters would ... say they don’t have significant problems getting interviews scheduled, visiting schools, or talking to teachers.”

“But even basic requests often require multiple phone calls and emails, negotiating terms, and attempts to limit the scope of an interview,” she added. “All of these things eat up the valuable—and ever-shrinking—amount of time reporters have to get their jobs done.”

Rich Bagin, the executive director of the National School Public Relations Association, said he found the survey was “a fairly accurate snapshot of the way it is out there. It is a mixed bag.”

Bagin’s Rockville, Md.-based group represents about 1,600 communications professionals who mostly work for school districts. (That’s about the same number of journalist members of EWA, as it happens.)

“If you’re trying to get to the ideal” of cooperation between reporters and school PR professionals, he said, “it all comes back to the development of relationships on both sides.”

“Where it goes south sometimes is where [school] people felt ambushed or felt they were not treated fairly in the past,” Bagin said. “That’s where it gets more difficult.”

Bagin said at least a third of his members of former journalists, and they and school PR employees from other backgrounds want to help reporters meet deadlines and reach sources.

“Many times the savvy communications person will try to convince the boss to talk and the boss just says no,” he said.

The EWA survey was released during Sunshine Week, an event meant to put a spotlight on government openness and transparency. Also on March 19, the Society of Professional Journalists released a separate survey of political and government beat reporters on access issues.

(Disclosure: I am a member of EWA and have done some freelance work for the organization in the past. I was not involved with this survey.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.