January 25, 2017

As news began to spread this week that some federal agencies were limiting or shutting down the flow of information to the public, Alex Howard grew increasingly concerned.

As deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open government, he wondered if these were isolated incidents or a government-wide directive from the new administration under President Donald Trump.

He watched as news outlets reported that the Environmental Protection Agency had frozen grant-making, restricted social media and instructed its employees not to talk publicly about what was happening.

Related training: “Access Denied: Your Rights When Government Shuts Media Out.”

It’s just not the EPA. Federal agencies are “limiting employees’ ability to issue news releases, tweet, make policy pronouncements or otherwise communicate with the outside world,” according to Politico.

So, on Tuesday, the Sunlight Foundation began tracking news reports on the topic to see how agencies are handling communication with the public and the press.

“We have not seen evidence of any government-wide memoranda at present,” Howard said. “We want to be able to inform the public about what agencies are being told and to pull together sources that help to confirm that. There have been some reports that turned out to be debunked.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday he was looking into the agency restrictions, but added, “I don’t think there’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, we’re going to review the policies.”

Howard recognizes that the new administration wants to implement its own policies but said it’s “abnormal” to freeze all outward communication.

“It is understandable if there are different policies that a given administration with a different political agenda will choose to communicate differently, but to choose not to communicate at all or to shut off access to scientists just goes way past those set of goals,” Howard said. “It certainly stands to chill the speech of government employees across the entire federal government enterprise.”

As of Tuesday evening, the Sunlight Foundation had linked to news articles about more than half a dozen federal agencies and how they are handling public communication.

“We see comments from some members of the public who are dismissive of some of the outlets that we have cited,” Howard said. “So we need to make sure that we have the broadest possible spectrum to improve the trustworthiness of the reports where possible.”

Meanwhile, in light of the media blackout, many journalists are calling on civically-minded whistleblowers to come forward with important information.

Howard shared the following advice for journalists who are struggling to get information or records from local, state or federal government agencies.

Protect your sources

Journalists are going to need to be great about protecting the documents and data, Howard said. That means using encryption and making sure that any sources that provide evidence to the public of unlawful or restrictive behavior are protected, because they’re taking risks.

Raise your standards

Journalists need to restrict anonymity to sources whose integrity and information is unimpeachable, Howard said.

Work your sources

Get off of Twitter and go meet people, Howard said. Develop sources. Figure out where people in these places are and build their trust.

Have access to help

Reporters and editors need legal resources and ethical resources to guide their work, Howard said. If they get investigated or get scrutiny because someone is being investigated for a leak, they’re able to protect their identity.

Write about the process

It’s crucial for young journalists to know that writing about the process of getting the requests is important to, Howard said. If that means filing stories about being denied the requests or having them dragged out, so be it, he said.

Documenting the process of getting public records shows the public how difficult it is to get official documents and puts pressure on the government to supply them, he said.

Show your work

Howard encourages reporters to digitize records and publish records once they’re reported. In an era of low trust in the media, showing source documents is very important, he said.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at WRAL.com in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is passionate about public records. She previously worked as an education reporter…
Kelly Hinchcliffe

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