Recent trends in censorship through oversight by public information officers and other authorities
Over the last 20 years agencies public and private, organizations, businesses and even some universities have brought about a surge of policies that prohibit staff from communicating with journalists unless they report to public information officers or other authorities. EPA recently attempted to expand the restraints its science advisory committee members.
The policies are serious censorship that’s become a cultural norm, with the same kind of impact censorship has everywhere.
The restraints are applied to specialized as well as generalized reporting so even information written for scientists is impacted. The restraints mean people can’t communicate without being tracked or monitored at the behest of people in power. That has a potent chilling effect.
But built on top of that are delays that make interviews infeasible and discourage journalists from initiating contacts; PIOs listening in on interviews; mandates on what may or may not be said; and deliberate blockage of contacts. No one, not even those instituting the rules, can imagine all the ideas and information that are blocked. But given the ubiquitous nature of the surveillance much discussion is eliminated and some of it is critical.
This has ethical and practical implications for research. Conflict of interest is inherent when institutions control information about their activities. True informed consent is not possible when institutions that fund, influence or set the parameters for research stifle discussion about their processes over years.
After years of fighting the restraints case-by-case, journalists and others are joining forces to expose them. In 2014 the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists led 38 groups in sending a letter to President Obama, asking for an end to the practice, saying, “This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.”
Media attention ranged over dozens of outlets, including USAToday, the New York Times, Fox News and Russian publications. In one example letter noted: • “A reporter with Investigative Post, an online news organization in New York, asked three times without success over the span of six weeks to have someone at EPA answer questions about the agency's actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of ‘universal waste’ and hazardous waste.”
Journalists plan other such efforts. Scientists are urged to join in resisting these policies wherever they occur.