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Ungagging your reporting is essential for transparency, accountability


by Stan Zoller, MJE
Want to get your news consumers to read a story? Give them a good, no great, lede. A good lede will not only get them to read a story, but may very well captivate them as well. But this piece isn’t about lede writing.

It’s from the Society of Professional Journalists’ update to its ongoing project, “Gagged
” that meticulously details the issue of, as it says, “ Who’s allowed to talk to the press?

According to the First Amendment, in most cases the answer should be anyone. But the reality for many Americans, particularly those who are employed, is far more complicated.

The report, on the SPJ website, not only provides background, but also ways journalists can get involved. What the research team found: example of documents received from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and a sample FOIA requests.

It’s a superb collection of insights and tools. However, what makes it so valuable are not just the lessons and tools available, but the insights that journalists, including scholastic journalists should review and take into consideration when pursuing a story.

At issue, in general terms, are policies that limit employees and public officials from speaking to the media.

The report notes that “The silencing of employees is problematic for workers, journalists and the public for many reasons, and is especially troubling in the public sector, which is funded by taxpayers dollars and protected by the First Amendment.”

Call it gagging or restraint, the bottom line is that such policies block transparency by organizations and public bodies, such as city councils and school boards. Journalists should know an organization’s policies about speaking to the media and be prepared to work with them or, if need be, use tools such as the FOIA to get information.

How tricky can these policies be? According to the report, the “Palm Beach County, Florida, public schools states that principals can speak without permission and must merely “notify” the affairs office, but says nothing about other employees.”

Other school districts have policies that offer varying degrees of access to the media by employees. For example, researchers found that Escambia County, Florida’s public school system has nothing in its rulebook about news media communications. Savannah, Georgia’s public schools say media are “asked” to coordinate with public affairs on site visits but otherwise include no restrictive language.

So, what’s a reporter to do? As noted, make sure you understand a, in this case a school district’s policy. Look for potential loopholes.

For example, does the policy extend to school board members? Does the policy include full- and part-time teachers? Does it include no teaching personnel, like athletic coaches or co-curricular advisers? Know the breadth of a policy will enable you to look for additional sources and prepare questions that fit within the framework of guidelines. If you’re dealing with a policy like the one in place in the Savannah, Georgia schools, have an understanding of what coordination is with public affairs. There’s always a possibility they’ll want to review your questions ahead of time.

Avoid this if possible because there’s a strong likelihood you’ll get “canned answers” developed but the districts’PR Flaks. If you submit the answers by email, there’s a chance an email response that the public affairs folks may think will suffice.

If this happens, be transparent in your reporting and clearly note that an in-person interview was denied in favor of email response generated by the PR Flak or some other person or department. Be sure to name the individual and/or the department.

If the proverbial interview roadblock remains, resort to filing a FOIA request. Your state will have laws guiding FOIA requests. In addition to the sample FOIA request at the SPJ site, the Student Press Law Center has some excellent resources on filing a FOIA.

It’s a lot of work. But it’s not the quantity of work that’s important. It’s the quality of work. As the old adage goes, the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. When it comes to transparent reporting and holding public officials accountable, quality journalism is the only way to go.

Because the gags have to come off.