By: JIE JENNY ZOU | Published: September 22, 2014
Note: In which I wax poetic on what it’s like to be professionally ignored. Hint: It’s kind of like a long aside in a play.
I’m approaching the three-month mark on my latest gig and don’t have a single byline to show for it.
For a lot of my friends in the biz, this would be a bad thing–a sign of stagnancy and an omen of impending doom. But for me, it’s meant ample time to chase after stories and topics that I can really sink my teeth into, as well as becoming better at story generation–a weakness of mine. That’s the upside.
The downside has been that my days have transitioned from breaking news coverage, lots of public meetings and generally “getting out there” to wrangling a myriad of record requests involving a slew of attorneys, record officers and press relation officials.
The slew is exactly what it sounds like: a gloppy mess of missed records deadlines, unanswered emails, and layers and layers of disappointment where everyone else seems to talk to everyone else except for the reporter who initiated the contact.
Peppered into the slew stew have been definite bright spots–attorneys who comply with state open records laws and do their due diligence, press officers eager to help and get back to you with useful information that add context and meaning and perhaps allow you to bypass a formal records request, and record officers who will go above and beyond what’s required of them despite diminished staff, phantom resources, and a massive backlog of pending requests.
Unfortunately, for the most part, these people have been the exception rather than the norm in the majority of my dealings since I started journalism six years ago. On the bright side, my experiences have made me appreciate these helpful few and not take them for granted, and also empathize with demands being placed on those who work in government or complex agencies and organizations. On the dark side, it’s made me question whether reporters can truly develop productive, long-term relationships with much of the media relations infrastructures that envelop organizations.
Like most journalists, I don’t go into a situation with a media relations person aiming to be confrontational or demanding the impossible. The smoothest media inquiries generally involve journalists working with PR to see what’s doable and what’s not, what’s available, and what doesn’t exist in a professonal, level-headed, if not somewhat persistent manner. It’s ideally a relationship where both parties are being generally reasonable and respectful to one another and neither side is asking for the moon.
But that relationship tends to break down when it comes to inquiries that take a much more pointed stance. But why should it? Too often, I’ve found some media relations officers appear to take inquiries personally. A sharp question or a records request made without their pre-consent is construed as an antagonistic dig at their competency, or a way to pull the wool over their eyes. Some records officers–overwhelmed, innundated by requests, and feeling agency pressure–feel uncomfortable even talking with press for a simple status update and defer to media relations to oversee and even take over a request.
I still remember the very first press officer I worked with while still an undergraduate student studying journalism. I remember thinking that things would change for me years further down the road once I was no longer a student and perceived as a professional. What I’ve found instead is that intimidation knows no age or level of professionalism.
In the last month, I had a press officer from an agency ask me point blank whether a story I was doing on a program would be portrayed in a “positive light.” This was after weeks of voicemails and emails to the officer on a singular topic. From the get go I let this officer know exactly what I was interested in and my intentions to file a records request if this information wasn’t something the media relations office readily had access to. Yet, my record request appeared to ‘blindside’ this officer. In effect, the officer thought that if what she provided wasn’t enough, then my inquiry should have stopped there. Without the office’s cooperation, there can be no story, right? Well, not exactly.
I’ve had other officers from other agencies tell me that my request will cost thousands of dollars and take years to generate, while also admitting that they aren’t even sure how the data is maintained or where. For the most part, I’ve had many read my emails and listen to my voicemails in virtual silence–waiting weeks for my messages to rack up like a sad, contemplative soliloquy (which reminds of this blog post, hence the title).
The fear of divulging too much, or being led astray like a sheep to slaughter is a feeling that seems to pervade much of the agencies I’ve worked with in the last year. The more jaded and veteran reporters I know put it quite plainly–that media relations people work in an industry that is just as volatile as journalism, but for entirely different reasons. The thinking among members of this particular camp is that those who fail to adequately protect the power structure and the agency from an inquisitive reporter fail to keep their jobs.
I, like most people, enjoy and require employment. So yes, I can empathize with that sentiment on a human level. But since when has a failure to comment done anything else except perpetuate a false sense of guilt or even unfairly validate allegations in a reader’s mind? When I ask most of my non-journalism friends what they make of articles where someone has declined to comment, the overall effect is the same. The reader is inclined to think that person or agency is hiding something or doesn’t want to admit something–regardless of what the truth may actually be.
Too often, agencies only begin to take requests seriously once the potential for a lawsuit comes into view or a reporter makes a habit of checking in. Improper denials under state records law are violations of state law–regardless of whether the threat of tangible punishment exists and who files the request. Denials of information that should be made public, but aren’t do nothing to further the public record.
As journalists and as people who work with the media or public, we’re similar in the fact that we are never entirely private citizens. Lots of things may occur behind the scenes while a story or media response is put together, but our work will predominantly fall within the public sphere. Yet, there always seems to be a wide valley where expectations and reality always fall short of one another.