The Person Standing Between the Press and the Government

Mediators can either make the already-uneasy relationship between reporters and public officials worse or better.
September 3, 2015
Tom Vilsack says he regrets how he viewed the press during his time as Iowa's governor. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Much of the commentary about government management deals with the work done by public-sector employees -- and the way in which they work together to get quality results. But there’s another crucial element to how government functions -- and that has to do with the relationship between the government and the public, which is linked by the press.

But the relationship between the press and government is inherently in conflict, and so animosity brews and frustrations mount. Reporters feel like government officials are trying to keep information secret and politicians and bureaucrats feel like the press is misinterpreting what’s really going on.

A few years ago, we spoke with Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa and now U.S. secretary of agriculture. When we asked him about dealing with the press as governor, he said, “I probably didn’t learn this lesson until very late in my second term. There’s an interesting partnership and relationship between the governor and the press. I took the position, unfortunately, that it was sort of an adversarial circumstance.”

The former governor’s great regret was that he didn’t encourage his administration to nurture a trusting working relationship with the press.

“I didn’t have those kinds of conversations. And I should have,” he said.

Usually there’s someone between the press and actual decisionmakers in the form of public affairs officers. From a public management perspective, though, there’s usually not much respect between the two groups. Reporters get frustrated when a public affairs official micromanages arrangements for an interview and sits in on the session itself.

“It’s harder to get through and we’re all the poorer for it," says William Glasgall, former managing editor for state and local coverage at Bloomberg News.

In fact, according to a survey of state, local and federal public affairs specialists, done by the National Association of Government Communicators and the Society for Professional Journalists, “about 65 percent of the professionals interviewed agreed they feel it is necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with members of their agency’s staff.”

Why? To make sure journalists get the necessary background to write an accurate story, to avoid misquotes and to make sure the best source is the one being accessed, according to the officials surveyed.

 

In full fairness, the job of the public affairs officer in a government has gotten to be increasingly difficult as the number of beat reporters and statehouse reporters diminishes. Between 2003 and 2014, the number of newspaper reporters covering state government declined by 35 percent. That means that a growing number of questions -- particularly those from the general press -- are coming from people who don’t necessarily know much about the issue they’re covering before they enter an interview.

This can easily result in crossed wires, like the many times when articles talk about deficits and shortfalls. The distinction between the two is clear to state and local budgeters but oblique to most others -- even politicians. Deficits represent insufficient dollars available to pay for services at the end of a fiscal year, while shortfalls are generally meant to describe the gap between anticipated revenues and expenditures when a budget is being formed. But the two terms are easy to confuse -- and frequently are.

The Louisiana News-Star made the mistake recently. The headline (captured below) talks about a $700 million deficit continuing annually through 2019, but the piece is really talking about shortfalls. Even an esteemed news organization like the Wall Street Journal has confused the terms in the past.

(Louisiana News-Star)

We can see how frustrating this may be for interviewees. But clever government employees can help to soften the impact of this phenomenon. Duane Goossen of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth was the budget director in that state for a dozen years, through 2010. We interviewed him a number of times and always found him to be an exemplar source. Here’s what he has to say now:

“What I found to be the most helpful was to find ways to educate press people about what’s happening within the state budget outside of when something is being released or when issues are present. I tried to find ways to make them understand how the budget operates. That way, when we actually released budgets we were able to get good reasonable reporting out of the press.”

For example, the state regularly fed reporters with information from the National Association of State Budget Officers so that it would be easier for them to understand Kansas in context with other states. As a result, articles about the rise in Medicaid costs were more likely to indicate that the issue wasn’t decidedly different in Kansas than elsewhere in the nation.

During the Great Recession, when state finances were extremely challenging, Goossen’s office did a group press session just for the purpose of educating journalists about the situation that the state faced. No proposals or recommendations were released, but rather they discussed the revenue outlook, the effect it was having on different parts of the budget, and possible options and their consequences.

“We answered questions until the questions ran out,” he says.

John Verrico, president of the National Association of Government Communicators, adds that it’s essential that public affairs people be honest if they want respect from the journalists who cover them.

“Just because your agency isn’t going to come out smelling like roses, [you’re better off] being honest and getting ahead of the story.”