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Reliable Sources, Accessible Sources, Part II

Posted on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at 12:31 PM

Has a culture of non-cooperation emerged that impedes our access to good sources?

By William Dunkerley

In Part I you saw the foundational considerations for identifying who or what organizations might be credible sources. But what's an editor to do if she or he is unable to gain access to such sources?

The Society of Professional Journalists has taken up the mantle of journalists' needs to have access to key sources of information. In particular it decries a perceived trend by governmental and private organizations to cloister their experts and key personnel. In 2015 SPJ told the Obama administration: "The press has seen a serious regression in our ability to gather news when compared to earlier administrations."

One of many examples cited was the refusal of the FDA to answer a question about ebola. Joyce Frieden, news editor at MedPage Today, had sought an interview to clarify information from an earlier FDA conference. But, she says, "I was basically stonewalled."

SPJ pointed out that "in the past, reporters talked with many people fluidly, including subject matter experts, as well as PIOs and political appointees." But now gatekeepers seem to be obstructing things.

This is a problem not only for mainstream news journalists covering governmental issues, but for journalists and editors in all fields of publication.

The organization told the Obama administration:

"Surveys sponsored or co-sponsored by SPJ have documented that the restrictions are pervasive in many areas of the country, to the point they are a cultural norm. They are used in state and local governments, schools, hospitals, police departments, business and other organizations."

Bob Neubauer, editor-in-chief of In-Plant Graphics, bemoans the same basic issue. His audience consists of managers of in-plant printing facilities nationwide.

Recently he contrasted his present experience in accessing sources with how things were back in the 1980s. Neubauer reflected:

"It was a different world back then, where in-plants were strong and vibrant, not living in fear of a shutdown. They were vocal about the number of pages they printed, the new iron they were adding, the money they were saving. Companies like Merck Pharmaceuticals, Phillips Petroleum, and McDonnell Douglas were more than happy to boast about their in-plants to this magazine."

Now things are different for Neubauer. Interviews are harder to come by. And that perhaps gives credence to SPJ's contention that a culture has emerged that favors strict restrictions on access to the sources that are sought by editors and journalists.

Newbauer elaborates:

"These days the tendency is for large corporations with in-plants to keep them hush-hush, like a dark secret. I get turned down all the time in my quest to feature these companies' in-plants in IPG. The large pharmaceutical, aerospace, and retail in-plants have not all been shut down; they're just staying silent, no longer allowed to brag of their accomplishments and money-saving benefits. The result is that the in-plant industry seems smaller and less significant now (and filled mostly with university in-plants, who are happy to have their operations featured)."

Given the pervasive culture of non-cooperation that has asserted itself, it's not likely there will a quick solution. But with a new presidential administration, SPJ wrote to Donald Trump and Mike Pence to express continued concerns over unsatisfactory access to government sources and to request a meeting to discuss the problem. Certainly a new attitude of cooperation from the White House might set an example for both government and industry.

Editors Only asked SPJ officials if they received a response to their overture. Jennifer Royer, communications strategist for the organization, told us that as of Friday, February 24, nothing has been received.

SPJ president Lynn Walsh added, "We are planning on following up soon because we still feel a meeting with [Trump] and his administration is very important, especially with the news today of some news organizations being left out of a press briefing."

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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