A transparency backslide continues

Last September, we editorialized about a practice that was growing in New York state government, in which official spokespeople for agencies won’t let us quote them by name.

Instead, they insist that their remarks are “on background,” which is journalism jargon meaning we can use their quotes but cannot attribute them to that person by name. Instead, they say we can attribute the statements to the agency as a whole or with some vague description such as “officials say …”

Where’s the accountability in that? And why is our state government backsliding on transparency in this way, of all ways?

We revisit the topic now because this is Sunshine Week, an annual occasion for calling special attention to laws and standards of open government.

We are sad to report that the situation has not gotten any better in the last six months. The agencies that do this haven’t stopped, including the Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

On the upside, the practice doesn’t seem to have spread to other agencies we deal with regularly. We haven’t yet heard this guff from spokespeople for the New York State Police, Department of Transportation, North Country Community College or the Adirondack Park Agency. We hope we never do.

We are not sure why the practice is inconsistent, and we are not certain who is ordering it. It seems like it’s coming from the top down and that the spokespeople are following orders, but they haven’t explicitly said that.

We think it’s important to let you, our readers, know that this practice is unacceptable to us. When a government spokesperson says an official statement is “on background,” our reporters are required to tell that person they cannot accept that. Such statements are either not reportable, as if they were off the record, or we must apply our protocols for anonymous sources, which require speakers to credibly explain how harm could come to them if we reveal their names — also, the statement must be so important for the public to know that we are willing to stick our necks out to publish it.

It isn’t fair to you, the reader, if we let these public-relations people call the shots and expand our grounds for quoting anonymous sources, without giving reasons. You pay money for this newspaper and deserve credible answers, which includes knowing where news is coming from.

More and more, Americans are skeptical of the news media — and we’re OK with that. Some of the doubts are due to a national political smear campaign, but we welcome fair-minded scrutiny. Reporters and editors should be accountable for where and how they gather information, and how they convey it to the public. The goal is to share “the best obtainable version of the truth,” to quote Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, in a trustworthy manner so everyone can understand the reality we face.

Journalism is far from an exact science, but there are some practices that are better than others. Some of those are as simple as covering your own butt. For instance, it’s important for us to show our sources so people don’t falsely accuse us of making things up.

Yes, there is an important place in journalism for anonymous sources. We avoid using them whenever possible, but we all know that institutional powers sometimes don’t want to reveal things to the public that the public wants and needs to know. Sometimes people inside those institutions, who know what’s going on, are on the side of the public’s right to know and are willing to tell them the truth via the media. To keep them from getting fired, or worse, we agree to cite them anonymously.

But an official government agency spokesperson is not a whistleblower when he or she gives a public statement on the agency’s behalf. That is not a leak; it is official government communication.

This was always understood until now. Neither we nor the public has been given a reason for why it is changing.

How pathetic is it that this Sunshine Week, instead of being able to report slow but steady progress toward a more transparent democracy, we have to talk about a trend in the opposite direction — in which even the professional mouthpieces of government agencies act as if what they have to say is shameful and they can’t have their names attached to it?

Again, we are not sure who is ordering this practice, but we know Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the power to stop it, whether he started it or not. Again, we urge him to do so.

This is one more of those little things that breeds distrust in government, and Sunshine Week is an appropriate time to shine a light on it.