What Education Reporters Really Think of PIOs
Nearly 200 reporters covering K-12 and higher education at the local, state, and federal level “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,” according to a new survey out this week.
The education reporters also said it was commonplace for public information officers (PIOs) to require pre-approval for interviews and to monitor those conversations.
Co-sponsored by EWA and the Society of Professional Journalists, the new survey is the latest in a series by Carolyn Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Last year she reached out to PIOs working for public agencies and asked them to share their perceptions and practices regarding media access. Nearly four out of every 10 of the respondents said they had blocked a reporter’s access because they had “problems” with a prior story.
EWA and SPJ co-hosted an event earlier this week at the National Press Club to release the results, in conjunction with Sunshine Week activities promoting the importance of transparency in government and access to public information.
Let me be clear here: The new survey’s findings are not a condemnation of education agency PIOs, many of whom I believe are consummate professionals. Rather, it’s a glimpse of the access challenges facing reporters on a daily basis.
At the National Press Club, Carlson also shared the results of a companion survey of political and general assignment reporters at the local and state levels. She found that attempts to control reporters’ access have increased steadily in recent years, and it’s a problem that is unlikely to abate. In other words, there are consistent findings for reporters at all levels and across many beats.
The EWA survey found that more than half of the education reporters said they had tried at least once to work around a PIO rather than risk getting blocked. That statistic shouldn’t surprise anyone. (I know a reporter in Connecticut who responded to a school district limiting her access to teachers by creating a book club and inviting the teachers to join. It’s been a runaway hit.)
But on the flip side, I know reporters who have been covering their local school districts for five years or longer and have yet to score an interview with a central office administrator that wasn’t monitored by a public information officer. In some cases, reporters tell me, school staff – including the principal – is told to refer all press inquiries to the public information office. And in more than a handful of districts the superintendent is the only person who can be quoted in a story.
These might seem like extreme examples, but if you share them with education reporters across the country, many would say they’ve experienced similar circumstances. At the same time, there is no shortage of reporters filing open records requests that are clear and specific, and having those requests filled in a timely fashion.
Many reporters would also 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. All of these things eat up the valuable, and ever-shrinking, amount of time reporters have to get their jobs done.
A frequent complaint from PIOs is that reporters “get the story wrong,” or somehow don’t fully convey the nuances of a complex situation. That’s a reasonable concern, and the best way to address it is to give reporters access to the individuals in a position to explain those complexities and provide the relevant context.
Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association, told Education Week that the survey was “a fairly accurate snapshot of the way it is out there. It is a mixed bag.”
Bagin said there needs to be cooperation on both sides – reporters and PR pros.
“Where it goes south sometimes is where [school] people felt ambushed or felt they were not treated fairly in the past,” Bagin told Ed Week. ”That’s where it gets more difficult.”
That leads me to another key takeaway from the EWA member survey: Three-quarters of the journalists said they have positive relationships with the public information officers at their local school districts. This is further evidence that both sides likely view each other as approaching their work with the best of intentions.
But it’s not necessarily a good thing if reporters believe that it is part of a PIO’s job description to throw up roadblocks for reporters. Rather, education reporters need to realize that the default position should be “open,” not “closed.” PIOs should be gatekeepers, not prison guards.
We have at least some evidence that some reporters and public information officers are on the same page about what they believe is in too-short supply: high-quality, in-depth reporting on education issues. In a separate survey, EWA recently asked its entire membership (which includes both journalists and non-journalists) to list their No. 1 career challenge. Nearly 60 percent of our journalist members said it’s a lack of time and resources to produce in-depth coverage. At the same time, 42 percent of EWA’s non-journalist members say a lack of coverage of education in general and in-depth coverage in particular was their biggest challenge.
So why does this matter? The work of education journalists helps inform parents, taxpayers, and policymakers about what’s really going on in the business of schooling. To be sure, it would be difficult to find a time in recent history when the nation’s public education system was in greater flux, or when the accountability that comes with thoughtful scrutiny by the media mattered more. If we truly want more and better reporting, eliminating unnecessary and unreasonable limits to access of public information and public officials would be an encouraging step in the right direction.