Official communication isn’t ‘on background’

We don’t normally use editorials to complain about the obstacles to getting news from government agencies. We work with the people we’re referred to, or work around them if necessary. If we have a problem, we tell them. If that doesn’t work, we go higher up the chain of command.

We want to have a good working relationships with all our sources, but ultimately, our main obligation is not to them. It’s to you, our thousands of readers: to find out what’s going on and tell you about it, to anticipate and answer your questions, and to cut through the fog of complicated processes to explain things clearly.

That’s why we’ve gotten to the point where we’re writing this today.

We have reported in the past how Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has cracked down on state employees talking to news reporters. Instead of letting experts at state agencies answer questions, usually harmless ones, the Cuomo administration tries to funnel all inquiries through public information officers.

Gov. George Pataki’s administration did that kind of thing in the early 2000s, though to a lesser extent. Before then, we remember a story about dumping snow into the Saranac River where our reporter had to figure out which Department of Environmental Conservation water quality expert to ask, and ended up doing separate interviews with all of them. It was more work for the reporter, but more thorough and reliable for the reader.

Recently — we’re not exactly sure when it started — those state public information officers started insisting that their answers be given “on background.” That’s journalism jargon meaning we can publish the response but not the name of the person it came from.

That’s ridiculous. These are not leaks; it’s official state agency communication through formal channels. There’s no need to be sneaky about it.

We normally don’t conceal our sources’ identities because doing so puts our credibility at risk. In the rare cases when we do allow anonymity, the person must have a legitimate reason to fear retribution, such as getting fired or attacked. These public information officers are not going to get fired for answering our questions. Rather, that is the very job taxpayers pay them to do.

In the long run, playing this “Don’t use my name” game hurts the credibility of government as well as the media. It makes state agencies sound ashamed of their actions and too gutless to be accountable to taxpayers. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is blasting the news media for using anonymous sources and suggesting that the nation’s top reporters are simply making these sources up. Even if you believe the president over these reporters (we don’t), why create a Washington-level web of distrust when you don’t have to?

Many state PR people seem to understand that this “on background” business is unnecessary, because they don’t always stick to it. We were outraged the first time it happened to us and refused to grant anonymity — and the spokesperson backed down. Since then, every time it comes up, we have a conversation with the spokesperson that ends with us either attributing the source or not using the response. It goes to show this practice is indefensible.

Also, we see that many agency spokespeople we’ve dealt with for years don’t ask us to withhold their names. They know us, we know them, and they see no reason not to be accountable.

We hoped this practice would fade out months ago, but it has persisted across multiple state agencies. It would appear to be the policy of the executive branch, and we now find it necessary to speak out publicly.

Gov. Cuomo, whether or not this was your idea, it’s a lousy one. You could end it immediately. Please do so.

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