National Press Club

Panel urges reporters to educate government workers on right to speak to press

March 15, 2018 | By Bill McCloskey |

Left to right: Kathryn Foxhall, Julie Pace, Kimberly Leonard, Rachel Oswald, Henry Kerner and Tom Devine

Left to right: Kathryn Foxhall, Julie Pace, Kimberly Leonard, Rachel Oswald, Henry Kerner and Tom Devine

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

A panel of journalists and government accountability experts told a National Press Club audience March 14 that journalists need to educate government employees that they have a legal right to talk to reporters.

The education is necessary if reporters expect to combat what surveys say is a growing effort by agencies to inject public information officers between news gatherers and news sources, the speakers said.

"It just gets worse and worse," said Kathryn Foxhall, a freelance reporter and member of the Freedom of the Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. "How can acquiescing to these controls be ethical journalism?" she asked.

It is becoming "cultural" panelists agreed. Newly minted reporters think going through publicists instead of going direct to the experts who have the information "is just the way it is," said Rachel Oswald, vice chair of the Club's Freedom of the Press Committee and a reporter for Congressional Quarterly. Henry Kerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, who has been in that job since Oct.30, said he wants to change the culture in which fellow workers feel a whistleblower or leaker "is a rat."

Kerner also amused the audience by clarifying that he was not "that special counsel," but noted that for a while when you did a Google search for "U.S. Special Counsel Henry Kerner," a photo of Special Counsel Robert Mueller accompanied the bio.

Although the panel was addressing the difficulty of getting access to sources without being subjected to "handlers," it expressed appreciation for the help of press officers. "We deal with the press offices because they exist," said AP Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace. She noted they provide event schedules that they compile, for example. But, she emphasized that just because you deal with the press office doesn't mean you don't also go directly to the subject matter experts.

Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, which works to protect whistleblowers, conceded you can't have 1,000 employees claiming to speak for an agency. He said if you are speaking for the department, you need approval, but if you talk to reporters as an individual, that discussion is protected by federal law.

Foxhall chimed in, "an average employee is not going to have the nerve to do that."

But, Devine said journalists need to "teach your sources what their rights are." Kimberly Leonard, Washington Examiner health care reporter and chair of the D.C. chapter of Health Care Journalists said, "it's our job to put people at ease." GAP has resources for sources here. Another resource is here.

Kerner, who came to the Trump Administration from the House Oversight Committee said Congress also has trouble getting information from government officials. That was "because Congress allowed it to happen," he said.

Panelists also provided advice about how to work around thepublic information officers. GAP's Devine suggested asking subject matter experts for reports and memos, which he said to describe as "work products." The reporter should focus on filing Freedom of Information Act requests, he said. He also suggested getting the transcripts of Congressional hearings on a topic to mine for information.

The dicussion was recorded and the video will be available to members here.