Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The State of Information in 2023


I have been in the business of public information for three decades now, and the landscape has changed in unimaginable ways.

When I began, government spokespeople had just become accustomed to the concept of a 24-hour all-news channel after CNN established itself as a disrupting force in broadcast news with its round the clock overage of the Persian Gulf War. CNN would dominate the 1990s, paving the way for MSNBC and Fox News.

And, of course, in the subsequent decades, broadcast networks have stiff competition from digital news and social media. Newspapers have almost unilaterally been forced to create an online presence to stay afloat. More and more local broadcast affiliates and newspapers are bought by national chains every year which inevitably results in smaller local newsrooms.

There are also more and more news outlets that are purely digital. The traditional print and broadcast outlets convert more and more of their content to digital multimedia content each year in order to follow their audience.

I see this split in my own household as I vastly prefer the wide array of online content in my app every day from The Economist while my husband patiently waits for the print magazine every week.

This ever-morphing media landscape sometime blurs the roles of workers in our industry. I maintain these jobs remain distinct and we need to take care to mark our work products according to our job. Most importantly we need to keep our level of professionalism high.

One of the most crucial distinctions is between news and analysis. In my role as a columnist, I provide analysis, not straight factual reporting. This is so important to make clear. Our local television anchors and reporters, the reporters in the papers that carry this column, national correspondents reporting from the White House or the Pentagon: they are journalists charged with reporting news as it occurs.

Columnists, analysts, pundits: we are different. Our job is to take current events or topics of general interest and share our analysis or opinion. Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Joe Monahan, Paul Gessing – we are all sharing our opinions. It’s commentary on the news, but not news itself. Pro tip: get the facts first, then read the commentary.

And the reporting and analysis we get is only as good as the information we receive. I’ve written before about my frustration with the dying art of government public information. It is not getting better. I have the unique role of straddling both sides of the fence here since in my day job my firm supports government clients with their public and internal information work. My job on active duty in the Navy was public affairs and I worked as a government spokesperson on issues ranging from aviation to recruiting to healthcare, the environment and military acquisition.

I have a strong sense of how government information show flow. In general, the military is getting a B to B+ in 2023. Other executive branches, and the state of New Mexico, have a long way to go.

Rule one: government information must be accurate. This has always been a basic tenet of public information but in today’s era of partisanship and distrust, there is no room for mistakes. The White House’s recent statement upon the death of former Governor Bill Richardson was particularly regrettable for its sloppiness. The original condolence statement referred to a nonexistent daughter. This daughter has only been referred to on a fake news site. It’s troubling that the White House communications staff is doing research for a condolence message on a fake news site and not, say, the Santa Fe New Mexican, more upsetting that there isn’t sufficient adult supervision to fact check it.

The incorrect reference remains cited in several publications, attributable to the President. I am very upset by this as a career public information professional. The responsible individuals should face serious career consequences over this. My guess is they won’t.

Another of the most basic public information rules of thumb for me is if information is generally releasable under a public records request, you release it on first request. Denying requests for publicly releasable information with the phrase, “file a public records request,” makes you look (1) lazy or (2) like you’re hiding something. In either case, you are making the requester mad.

New Mexico government, in particular CYFD, obviously doesn’t believe in this maxim, and neither does the U.S Postal Service. A business colleague of mine recently tried to track one of his campaign mailings that was delivered three days after the last election (he lost by only 38 votes so was upset by the mailing snafu with good reason). He was consistently stonewalled in his request for basic tracking information that would otherwise be provided for an Amazon order fulfilled by USPS. He finally filed a public records request for the tracking information as well as any associated emails regarding his shipment.

Imagine his surprise when he received the documents pertinent to his request and discovered emails from a DC-based communication consultant for USPS directing regional public information officers not to offer any assistance regarding my colleague’s case but still try to seem pleasant and above all not to apologize for the misdelivered shipment.

(Public information rule 3: all email is discoverable.)

If USPS had just told my colleague where his shipment had gone in the first place, they could have saved themselves a lot of work. After USPS refused his initial request, he went to his local media who ran several unflattering stories about USPS, and then filed the public records request. Six months later, when he received the results of the USPS records request, he released the information to the same media, and USPS took another hit. None of this would have happened had USPS just provided the basic tracking information in the first place.

Journalists, analysts, PR professionals and news sources all have their roles. The working environment is intense, the demand for information constant, resources stretched thin, and the requirement for accuracy is greater than ever. Add the backdrop of political polarization, and it is clear that the public deserves our best work.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appeared regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run one head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at news.ind.merritt@gmail.com.


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