I’m embarking on a difficult but exciting process of learning how to retrieve information without depending fully on official access.
The Intercept reporter Glenn Greenwald points to major shifts going on in journalism:
This is a critical component of the future of journalism, especially now. https://t.co/OwiR7llGGI
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 13, 2017
— The Intercept (@theintercept) January 12, 2017
It is a fitting challenge to the post-WWII assumption among journalists that the better you are, the more access you have to the decision makers.
Of course, it was never true.
Access is always a deal
It was promoted by those reporters who made deals of silence on one topic in order to get access on another.
When it came to government, the agreement was and still is that reporters can have access through a public information officer, or PIO.
But, the transparency of the PIO has to do with what their boss thinks about the news media and press.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I know some excellent PIOs who are not sinister and encourage their bosses to be fully transparent.
But the problem with depending on access through a PIO or press secretary is that the news is dependent on a single person who throttles the flow of information by direction of their boss.
And it has been the same for reporters’ relationships to the corporate world.
It goes like this:
Don’t ask too many questions.
Repeat what the company wants the public to think.
Here’s another example:
This is how access journalism works. Play by a company’s rules, parrot their narrative or they’ll penalize you (for telling the truth) https://t.co/8xYbUdlDuh
— Christopher Mims (@mims) April 19, 2017
I am lucky to know several excellent local government PIOs and several more PR pros who I think do a good, honest job of representing their clients.
But what Greenwald is pointing to is a reality of the news environment today: There are far more public relations spin doctors out there than there are reporters. Their funding is significantly larger and more secure.
In contrast to the good PIOs and PR pros I know, there are other firms out there that specialize in creating a black box where many of the real decisions go on, undetected and unreported by traditional media who have been oriented over the years to depend on access.
Access made my job easier at first, but it is something that I have grown far too dependent upon.
I’m starting to understand why Greenwald and other reporters have become so negative about access journalism.
I will become a better reporter as I realize deeply that it is my purpose to be an outsider.
That’s the only way I won’t hold back in what I report.
It’s the only way I will keep asking and digging when others don’t want me to see.
The news organizations that receive early access to information through cozy relationships never seem to quite have the whole picture as the story develops later.
That’s the trade-off.
But the trade-off never serves the voting public who need to know more than the one-half to three-quarters of the story those publications run.
It will be harder to report the news by not playing by the rules of access journalism, but our readers and democracy will be better served.
Photo courtesy of Angela Little