Monday, March 14, 2016

Surveys detail struggles crime reporters have in getting data from public information officers

Crime reporters say public information officers "often make their jobs more difficult by creating barriers to agency experts who have information the public needs to know," Jonathan Anderson, Carolyn Carlson and Jennifer Royer report for the Society of Professional Journalists as part of Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press. Sunshine Week runs through through Saturday, while National Freedom of Information Day is Tuesday, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment.

SPJ conducted a survey of 181 law enforcement agency public information officers (PIOs) that "found that most maintain message control by requiring police officers to refer reporters to them when contacted directly by a reporter," SPJ reports. "A majority of PIOs also monitor the interviews they set up with reporters. Most said they monitored to make sure the officer doesn’t reveal information that is not part of the official message, although some said they were there simply to reassure a nervous officer who is not comfortable being interviewed, especially on television."

An SPJ crime reporters survey of 195 respondents found that "less than 15 percent of the crime reporters said they were able to get around the policy of having to go through a PIO to get an interview," reports SPJ. "The rest said they had to use the PIO if they wanted to talk to an officer or investigator. This holds true even at crime scenes. Reporters generally have to wait until the PIO shows up to find out what’s going on and, on rare occasions, talk to an investigator. However, for many, the PIO doesn’t come to the crime scene."

Carlson, an associate professor of journalism at Kennesaw State University, who helped conduct the surveys, said one of the most disturbing findings was that "about half of the PIOs surveyed have a policy of banning interviews with a reporter or media outlet after they have problems with their stories," SPJ reports. Carlson said, “PIOs say they monitor interviews to ensure that correct, consistent messaging is released, to ensure a reporter stays on topic and to ensure interviews stay within the parameters the agencies want, but the extent of these controls are incompatible with a free society."

Only a few of the reporters said "that the crime records that they used to have to ask for, like crime incident reports, are now being put online," reports SPJ. "Most say police computer systems make access to public records difficult. Many PIOs report that their records management software is older than four years old, some as old as 10-15 years. They agree that their systems often make it difficult to separate the public from the private information When asked to provide more details about the problem, many PIOs said they had to manually redact information, like driver’s license numbers, that could not be released by law, and that slows down the process. Reporters said they usually would get the records they requested within the time frame required by their state law but rarely right away. Usually the PIO or the records custodian is able to answer questions about the records, but the reporters say that they rarely will explain why things have been redacted."

Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press, celebrates its 11th year this week through Saturday. National Freedom of Information Day is Tuesday, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment. The Sunshine Week site provides plenty of tools, including opinion columns, editorial cartoons, Sunshine Week logos and icons, a sample proclamation for state and local governments, the Schools and Colleges page for students and educators and a series of open government questions to ask candidates running for federal positions.

No comments: