Journalists to Obama Administration: Where’s the Transparency?

Despite early pledges by the president to improve government officials’ interaction with reporters, a number of journalists groups say federal agencies still often fail to allow staff to make official comments.

The journalism world says the Obama administration is failing at transparency.

In a letter sent to the president Tuesday, several groups representing journalists—including the Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of News Editors, College Media Association, Online News Association, and Reporters Without Borders—criticized the lack of transparency in the public sector, despite promises by the president to improve it.

“Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government,” states the letter, signed by 38 separate organizations. “We consider these restrictions a form of censorship—an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”

Unlike previous complaints about the administration’s media strategy, this one casts a broad net over the executive branch. The letter lays out examples involving reporters who were stymied by unresponsive or uncooperative federal agencies, and it cites a Kennesaw State University study noting that 40 percent of public affairs officials surveyed have withheld comments from reporters due to unfavorable coverage.

“A journalist with Reuters spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve him talking with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change,” the letter notes in one example. “The public affairs officer did not respond to him after his initial request, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads and contacted EPA’s chief of staff.”

To go with the letter, the Society of Professional Journalists put together blogs highlighting examples of journalists who struggled to get responses from federal officials and a list of resources confirming the facts laid out in the letter.

Prior Complaints

Criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the media has been pronounced in recent years. Among the issues raised:

While the White House Correspondents Association plays nice with the president once a year, the other 364 days are a different story. The association says press access to the president is increasingly rare.

Groups representing photojournalists have criticized the administration for failing to offer access to the president at events, instead providing handout photos.

Last year, more than 50 journalism groups objected to the Justice Department’s acquisition of phone records of Associated Press reporters over a two-month period. The DOJ’s move was in response to a leak involving a foiled terror plot.

(photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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