The Secret to Keeping Secrets - News and Information Week


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The idea that information is restricted in today’s world may appear suspect to those whom the supposed “information superhighway” sometimes feels more like a furious torrent of TMI and gasp-worthy testaments of humanity’s strife. However to advocates on the issue of Freedom of Information (or “FOI” in their shorthand), there is a grossly non-poetic irony to how the most underreported news story of all might be how much vital public information to our democratic discourse largely goes underreported, if not flat-out withheld by their handlers.

For David Cuillier, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists, and Charles Davis, executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, underreporting is its own kind of censorship. Their definitions of that already loaded term provide more encompassing, yet more specified meanings than that which the public might hold.

“When people think of censorship, they think of Hitler, Stalin, folks with their goons coming in and shutting down newspapers and putting people in jail,” says Cuillier, “Really, censorship goes far beyond that and people don’t realize the extent of federal censorship through the control of information.”

A recent study by the Society of Professional Journalists conveyed frustration from the professional press at the growing public relations culture among federal agencies that better resembles their counterparts in the corporate world; or rather, one in which the positives are continuously boasted in shouts from the highest peaks while the negatives are hidden at all costs.

“What we found was three-quarters to 80-something percent of these journalists are having to go through public information officers before they can talk to agency employees,” Cuillier says. “The PIOs sit in on the interviews and control the interviews; sometimes they say the journalists can’t even talk to the employees.”

Like any company or organization, government agencies have a right to facilitate their press relations with a reliable and qualified representative. They have done so for decades, but should they operate on the same ethical strata as their counterparts in the private sector?

“These days they are acting more as deniers of information than facilitators,” says Davis. “I think there needs to be a reminder of who they work for at the end of the day: they work for us.”

As Cuillier notes, it didn’t always used to be this way, at least before public relations became a college major. In the proverbial ‘back then’ of decades past, journalists often held these positions and carried themselves with all the professional and ethical prowess of their former profession therein.

“Nowadays, you have these PR programs at universities where students are being taught in terms of strategy and are very effective at what they do,” says Cuillier. “But they come out often without a lot of perspective on the big picture of how they fit into society and their obligations to society, not just to their client or who’s paying their paycheck.”

The pair authored a guide book for journalists navigating the current political and public relations environment to find illegally withheld public records called The Art of Access. On their blog of the same name, they highlight stories that frequently show how these practices exist on not only the national, but the state and local levels of government as well. This week, the blog features details on how state legislators in Tennessee are seeking to keep the evaluations for new teachers in public schools secret from the public .

According to FOI advocates, mass media ignorance of these smaller stories focusing on interests of total disclosure are the primary causes of long-standing systematic issues in society’s institutions. In the eyes of Charles Davis, among those institutions that suffer most from lacking disclosure is the American correctional system.

“It’s breaking under the weight of its own size,” says Davis. “Now, we have a host of issues spinning out of that, from a rapidly aging prison population to rapidly aging and overcrowded prison facilities.”

Before being reminded of the recent expansive feature in The New Yorker on the issue, Davis specified his feelings on censorship in regards to the problems facing America’s prisons, “I don’t think that story is being censored in any way, I think that isn’t being reported and that may even be worse because it’s a story that is very much out there in front of us but we’re not hearing it.”

Over the last six months, the growing influence of social media in exposing underreported news stories has only become increasingly difficult to overstate, never mind properly gauge. For years, the mainstream media had been running stories on the crimes of African warlord Joseph Kony but it wasn’t until the release of Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video, now widely regarded the most popular “viral” video of all time, that anyone seemed to notice.

Given the controversy surrounding the video, both Davis and Cuillier see great advantages and disadvantages to the ever-growing people power that social media represents.

“They took some liberties and exaggerated some things to make their argument more powerful but really, that’s the stuff of advocacy. I don’t think people who advocate on behalf of a cause think that’s really out of bounds, journalists do,” expounds Davis. “So some of it is this cultural disconnect between professional norms in a multimedia world in which a lot of those things are converging.”

Despite that public support for bringing Joseph Kony to justice seems to have faded like a passing fashion trend, there’s little disputing how intimidating the great hammer of mass outrage is in the eyes of authorities when activated by something so difficult to control as social media.

“Public pressure is very effective, it’s powerful,” says Cuillier. “Government officials, I’ve found, will react to that much more than they will by complying with the law, for example, or doing the right thing and voluntarily providing information.”

As for the next great transparency coup at the hands of viral advocacy, Davis anticipates a storm on the horizon right in the crosshairs between where government and business meet to breathe life into mass media and politics.

This week, controversy began brewing over public interest files at local broadcast television outlets, which include all contracts between affiliates and their advertisers. Of particular note amongst these documents to activists are the complete account of all transactions between media entities and political advertisers.

“With all of this movement of campaign contributions to SuperPACs, it’s virtually the only way to find out where the money is going and for what,” notes Davis.

The information in these files is mandated to be made public by the FCC, and they are public — just not a way that’s conducive to the Internet age.

“The problem is it sits in a manila folder in an affiliate somewhere… so you have to drive ten miles out to the place and ask to see it and then make copies of it,” he laments. “We’re sitting here in 2012 with a system that’s made for 1956.”

Whether relying on the ever-bankable maxim of human laziness actually quantifies active censorship, the Internet is not only making the exposure of corruption easier but equally facilitating its concealment.