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TO THE POINT: When did it become a crime to ask questions?

Controlling the message is a hinderance that is not helpful to public

I’ve been away from the journalism world for a while. Much has changed in the past decade or so – some of it, for the better. While shrinking newsrooms and loss of jobs in the industry have not been ideal, journalism is more streamlined and digital-first than ever, with technology and new social media platforms bringing it into readers’ homes in many more ways than before.

But when did it become a crime to pick up the phone? To – you know – do my job?

I’ve noticed, since returning to the newsroom, that some agencies no longer list phone numbers, or provide any kind of media relations information, so reporters no longer have a name or any way to ask questions of anyone over the phone.

Instead, we get a prepared statement that doesn’t answer the questions we – and the public – want answered.

How is this being accountable? How is this acceptable?

I’ve also noticed many communications officials are using prepared email statements as a default, even when a phone interview is requested.

I get it. There are plenty of communications workers at all levels of government, and their job is to control the message as much as they can, while also performing the role of gatekeeper. But they represent officials with fantastic salaries who should be answerable to the public.

So why are phone interview requests now simply ignored?

Why are communications staff allowed to just ignore them?

Communications workers trying to push carefully scripted statements, via email, on reporters rather than help facilitate interviews is nothing new.

In a J-Source column by David P. Ball (for The Tyee) way back in 2013, he wrote about the issue of media’s acceptance of government statements, which blogger and former Times-Colonist editorial writer Paul Willcocks decried as self-serving and uninformative.

The strategy succeeds, he wrote, only because journalists reprint such statements.

The solution is simple, Willcocks wrote.

“The media should just say ‘no’ when offered an email response and report (that) the government or organization would not provide the minister or anyone to answer questions.”

Charlie Smith (former Georgia Straight editor) defended his paper’s reluctance to print emailed government responses, Ball wrote.

“If they send a canned statement in a news release, that’s fine,” Smith said.

“If their fallback position to answering questions is to send out emailed statements, they’re not serving the public.”

These days, communications officials often don’t actually attribute the prepared statement to a specific person who can be held accountable. They’ll say it’s from a whole department.

Journalists cannot quote a department; a whole department does not have one voice.

Ball also quoted University of British Columbia journalism professor Candis Collins, who noted that a reporter’s job is to make every effort to hold public officials accountable, to act as a surrogate for the public. For that reason, she noted, it behooves public officials to make themselves available.

That’s true at every level of government – municipal, regional, provincial and federal. They owe it to the public to make themselves available for interviews with journalists, especially when there is no urgent deadline and no reason to avoid an interview.

Instead, communications staff are instructed to pen boilerplate email responses.

This attempt to control the narrative is just as apparent now as it was a decade ago, but prepared – and heavily vetted – email statements are now endemic in the industry and show no sign of relenting.

Maybe communications staff should focus more on setting up phone interviews with real people – especially when that is what is requested – instead of hiding behind carefully crafted emails without allowing the journalist to ask a single question first.

Why not let reporters talk to the people who are paid handsomely to answer our questions?

That is our job.

Why not let us (to borrow a phrase from Nike) just do it?

Tricia Weel is a reporter with Peace Arch News

Tricia Weel

About the Author: Tricia Weel

I’m a lifelong writer, and worked as a journalist in community newspapers for more than a decade, from White Rock to Parksville and Qualicum Beach, to Abbotsford and Surrey, from 2001-2012
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