The federal government — your federal government — is finding that old policies and customs involving public information and public access may no longer have a place in the digital age of 24-hour news and citizen journalism.
Changes will come. And, that’s a good thing, if you truly believe in the public’s right to know.
First example is from the U.S. Census Bureau. For years and years, newspapers and network television news teams were given a jump on the reams and reams of government data compiled about Americans and the lives they lead.
This “courtesy” to the news media was halted last week.
In a memo headlined “Census Bureau temporarily suspends embargo access,” Public Information Officer Dwight Johnson wrote:
“The Census Bureau has experienced two major breaches of its embargo news release policy. Therefore, effective Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009, the bureau will temporarily suspend prerelease access to data products while an assessment of the embargo policy and a thorough review of the breach incidents can be conducted.”
Good. Now remove the word “temporary.”
These embargoes have always been hard to reconcile for true believers in the public’s right to public information. Why should select members of the established news media get public information before John Q. Public? Those embargoes — instituted at the behest of the news media — have become more and more controversial.
Here’s how they worked: Members of the established news media were given copies of periodic census reports days in advance of the public release of the information. The reports contain data sliced, diced and updated during the 10-year intervals between national census drives. Recent reports have dealt with city-by-city median incomes, poverty rates, food-stamp use and tax revenues for individual states and counties.
The embargo policy, which really was nothing more than a handshake agreement between the national news organizations and the government, was instituted decades and decades ago to give reporters time to sift through the data and have detailed news stories ready when a report became “public.”
Many in the news business rationalized that this was good thing. They believed that the public would be better served if some analysis and perspective compiled by professional journalists could accompany the release of the census reports.
The honor system of the embargo worked for years with only an occasional breach by a rogue newspapers or news outlet. With the advent of the Internet, blogging and the ability to make databases instantly available to the entire world, the breaches have multiplied.
It now appears the embargo system has outlived its usefulness — if it really ever had one.
The digital age is demanding that everyone be given access to the information at the same time. “Professional journalists” can still analyze and scrutinize the data, then report on it. And, so can everyone else.
The second example is from a federal courtroom in Salt Lake City. This past Thursday, kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart was testifying against her alleged abductor. Reporters for the Salt Lake Tribune were inside the courtroom e-mailing live reports out to the community, according to blogger and journalist Glen Warchol. This violated the federal judge’s order. No television cameras, no still cameras and no live blogging are allowed in federal courtrooms. In other words, this public proceeding could only be witnessed by members of the public who managed to fit into that particular courtroom.
To mollify the judge and comply with the antiquated federal court policies, the newspaper removed the e-mail reports from its Web site, then had the reporters step outside the courtroom and resend the e-mails. Those resent e-mails, according to Warchol, were then reposted on the newspaper’s Web site.
A change is going to come.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org