Local, state and federal governments increasingly rely on a new breed of public relations officials to control news coverage, according to two major studies announced March 19 in Washington, DC.
“It’s no wonder the United States has dropped 13 spots this year in a ranking of countries in press freedom – down to 46th – behind Uganda, El Salvador and Botswana,” said Society of Professional Journalists President David Cuillier. His group co-sponsored the surveys of local and education reporters in cooperation with the Education Writers Association.
“It’s shameful what is happening in this country,” he said. “It’s a war over information and we must take up arms.”
The two studies measured the reactions of experienced local and education reporters, respectively, to the increasingly common practice whereby governments forbid their employees to discuss news with reporters without approval of public information officers, who often guide reporters to the right employee and sit in on major interviews.
“More than three‐fourths of the local reporters and 76 percent of the education writers agreed with the statement that they believed the public was not getting the public it needs” because of controls by public information officers (PIOs) said Kennesaw State University professor Carolyn Carlson, shown at right and lead researcher for the studies announced at the National Press Club as part of Sunshine Week events. “Eighty three percent said they predict conditions would get worse over the next five years.”
Landmarks in top-down control over education coverage included the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado and “No Child Left Behind” coverage during the Bush Administration, said Emily Richmond, public editor of the education writers association. She is shown in the photo with Cuillier.