By Carolyn James
As we are in the midst of Sunshine Week, a time to reflect on and celebrate access to public information, a recent survey of working journalists has shown the impact of the pandemic on government access to public documents and news reporting. The news is not good.
The survey was sent out in a Google survey form by the Press Club of Long Island to working journalists in the Northeast. The information is the result of 40 responses.
Ninety-four percent of those who took the survey said that they attend more than 50 percent of government meetings via Zoom, and more than 75 percent of those said that the change has resulted in less access.
In addition, 64.7 percent said the change from in-person to virtual meetings has resulted in fewer members of the public attending and participating in those meetings.
Direct access to public officials and government data is an integral part of reporting and more than 75 percent of reporters who took the survey said the change from in-person to virtual meetings reduced or delayed their access to critical documents for stories. Also the data showed that 65 percent of those responding reported that there was at least a 50 percent reduction in public participation at virtual meetings.
Access for journalists to documents, public information officers (PIOs) and public officials dropped significantly during the pandemic as a result of closures, the survey showed.
“It’s much more difficult to get someone to answer an email than to simply walk up to them before or after a meeting,” commented one journalist. “Often, emails end up being routed through minders, ‘PIOs,’ who further gum up the process of trying to speak with the public official you’re trying to contact.”
“Lots of excuses,” said another reporter. “Especially with FOIL.”
The reporters cite excuses such as staffing shortages due to COVID, in response to concerns about delays in responding to Freedom of Information Law requests.
“I get messages that they are just too busy or unavailable,” said one respondent.
“In these pandemic conditions, most public officials are—and should be—wary of in-person contact. So they have become selective about who, when and where they meet, if at all,” said one reporter. “Further, the layers of tech tools required for Zoom meetings, not to mention the layers of masks, makes it more difficult to gauge nuance of gesture, expression and tone.”
Eighty percent of respondents reported that the ability of reporters to track down stories and sources during the pandemic has dropped significantly.
“I just find it harder to stay informed and motivated by myself than when I’m not around other people,” wrote one reporter.
“I think that when people are quarantined at home they just use it as an excuse for not getting back to you.”
Another reporter said he misses the opportunity of “stumbling onto sources or stories” because of the switch from in-person to virtual meetings. “They just do not provide the interaction with the public that in-person meetings provide,” he said.
It’s not all bad news, however. Forty-five percent of those responding said they have met the challenges of limited access by developing new and specific skills.
“I am using email more, sending questions,” said one reporter.
“I am using more outreach through social media,” said another.
Others have learned the skill of hosting and attending online conferences and meetings, while others are conducting interviews virtually.
Finally, one reporter put it this way when asked what skills he has implemented: “Digging deeper,” he said.