Censorship by public information officers (PIO) has been restricting public employees from speaking to the press and, as a result, prevents vital news from reaching the public.
This censorship has a long history within news media, leading to ethical and legal concerns for gatekeeping agencies.
Kathryn Foxhall, Washington journalist of over 40 years, said she has been active against censorship for years.
“It vastly affects our ability to fulfill our role as serving the public,” she said. “I hope that there’s a way to let the public know better about what is going on.”
Journalists rely on agencies like the FDA, CDC and NIH to get relevant information to share with the public.
“We need their stuff,” Foxhall said. “It’s about our money and survival. We need their information.”
Foxhall said the censorship and “media gags” that restrict people from sharing this information with journalists is unjust.
“This is corruption,” she said. “It’s the kind of corruption that shows major problems only when a major crisis hits.”
Foxhall said power is one of the main reasons journalists continue to struggle to get the information they need.
“Control of information is the most powerful thing in the world,” she said. “So many people with the least bit of authority… are doing this themselves and it’s part of their power and they want to keep doing it.”
She said there is a misconception that these agencies use this power to also have reins in the news.
“They are not in charge of us,” she said. “Journalists may be worse about this because we work for what we get. I think this is an apocalyptic world issue for all of us.”
Not sharing the information journalists need to prevents sometimes life saving information from reaching the public, especially during a pandemic.
“There are critical things that we are oblivious to,” Foxhall said. “We are trusting millions of lives to unknown human institutions.”
Foxhall encourages journalists to be skeptical of everything they receive, saying reporters should explain to these agencies how it keeps vital information from the public.
“Lose the embarrassment that says journalists are supposed to know everything therefore we can’t admit that these people are successfully blocking our newsgathering,” she said.
Journalists need to build a consciousness of this issue, Foxhall said.
Frank LoMonte, media lawyer and Brechner Center executive producer, said censorship by PIO is the top obstacle for journalists.
“It’s prevalent to all spectors of journalism, from people covering the pentagon to people covering local education systems,” he said.
These agencies become gatekeepers, separating journalists from the information they need, while also restricting the freedom of speech of their employees, LoMonte said.
“These types of blanket gag policies are unconstitutional,” he said. “The Supreme Court has laid out this framework that says employees do not forfeit their first amendment rights when they join the public workplace.”
LoMonte said unions tend to bring forward lawsuits rather than individual employees, which has been successful against these agencies.
“They’re a deadman walking,” he said. “It’s all illegal. They’re just waiting for someone to sue them.”