The President and Press Freedom: Making the Case for Open Access to Government Information

Open Access: The Case for Press Freedom

When it comes to covering government officials, there’s one person who holds the key to access: The communications officer.

Press secretaries and communications officers are the gatekeepers to their principals. Sometimes, they monitor interviews; they also may select those who will be handed a story.

Access control isn’t new, but the manner and tone in which it’s being carried out in today’s White House is different.

It’s gotten the attention of media agencies.

“Every administration has to develop a relationship with journalists,” says Rick Blum, director of News Media for Open Government. “It’s very important. There has to be a conversation, and there has to be an element of trust between the government parties and the reporters and editors.”

Blum says what’s concerning many members of the press now is the “impact of the public’s sense of the role of the free press.”

“The danger is when the public starts to distrust accurate and factual information,” he says.

Irving Washington, executive director with Online News Association, says the public must remain informed and journalists need access to that information.

“We are the fourth estate,” Washington says. “This is a rallying call for us to work together. You’ll see more and more news organizations work together on important stories.”

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Dear Mr. President

More than 80 groups committed to the First Amendment right of freedom of speech and the press recently partnered with the National Coalition Against Censorship and American Society of News Editors.

They sent a letter to the White House.

In a joint statement, the organizations stressed the attacks on the press by Donald Trump’s administration pose a threat to American democracy.

“The press plays an essential role in democracy by serving as an independent watchdog on government conduct and as the main source of information for the public,” said Joan Bertin, executive director of National Coalition Against Censorship, in the statement.

In January, the Society of Professional Journalists partnered with 60 other journalism groups, requesting a meeting with then President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence to discuss government access.

SPJ sent a similar letter to former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

“The average American citizen does not have the time or resources to check up on elected officials to make sure they are running the country the way they should,” said Lynn Walsh, national president of SPJ and investigative executive producer with NBC 7 San Diego. “It is up to journalists to help hold those in power accountable.”

More to Come

SPJ’s Walsh says the group hopes soon to have some news about next steps.

“We still have not received a reply from the White House and are still very much interested in the meeting and discussing the issues,” she says.

SPJ’s January letter initially was signed by 60 organizations. Another 15 quickly added their names to the conversation.

Walsh says this endeavor isn’t unique to either party or the person actually sitting in the White House.

The President and Press Freedom

“This is about the direction the country is moving in,” Walsh said. “It’s not a republican issue, and it’s not a democratic issue. The public should want to protect those rights. We want to protect those rights.”

Blum says there’s always been a push and pull between the government and news media.

He places a big responsibility on journalists to be clear in their actions.

“The public doesn’t know the care that reporters take on reporting sensitive topics,” Blum says. “We need to explain that better. It’s very important that journalists explain to their audience how they do their work, how they gather the information they’re gathering … At its best, reporting is very responsible and very careful.”

In related news, the Newseum is hosting an invitation-only program on The President and the Press: The First Amendment in the First 100 Days.

The half-day forum will include panel discussions and individual presentations, as well as the opportunity for members of the press, representatives of President Trump’s administration, and First Amendment experts to meet individually. Participants also will discuss challenges to the First Amendment, a free press, and protecting the free flow of information in a divided nation.

The goal of the conference is to reduce tension between the administration and media, and provide guidelines for the road ahead.

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Christine Cube is a senior audience relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. Follow @cpcube or check out her latest on Beyond Bylines on PR Newswire for Journalists.

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