Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Indiana Government News Website: Media Criticize Proposal While Ignoring Their Own Failure to Do Independent Reporting

A few months into my employment as co-director of the Indiana Title Insurance Division, then Insurance Commissioner Jim Atterholt discovered one of my few skills is communications.  From that point I was assigned a second responsibility, de facto public information officer for the Department.
In that capacity I would occasionally jot off press releases and work with media contacts to get coverage.

It wasn't a time consuming job certainly.  Unlike the Department of Insurance, many if not most state agencies have someone who is paid solely to deal with the media.  They go by various names:  public information officer, communications director, press secretary, etc.  Some agencies in state government have multiple communications directors.  Last time I check, the Attorney General employed three highly paid employees in that position.

So now the news breaks that Governor Mike Pence is going to offer a consolidated approach to state communications with a website devoted to release of information. The Indianapolis Star reports:
Pence is planning in late February to launch "Just IN," a website and news outlet that will feature stories and news releases written by state press secretaries and is being overseen by a former Indianapolis Star reporter, Bill McCleery.


The Pence news outlet will take stories written by state communications directors and publish them on its website. Stories will "range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles."

The endeavor will come at some taxpayer cost, but precisely how much is unclear. The news service has two dedicated employees, whose combined salary is nearly $100,000, according to a search of state employee salary data.
Government officials communicating with the media and the public isn't exactly a new phenomenon.  It has been going on since organized government began.  It appears that Governor Pence is doing little more than consolidating communications that is already going on over several state agencies.   Yet this has not stopped the mainstream media from exploding in outrage over Governor Pence supposedly using taxpayer dollars to compete with them.  (Cue the rolling of my eyes.)  Locally we already have editorials by Indianapolis Star's Tim Swarens and Matt Tully decrying the move.

The problem is not state government providing content, which has been going on forever, the problem is that media outlets have become incredibly lazy simply repeating what is told them by government without question.  While news outlets rarely publish pres releases verbatim, they increasingly regurgitate claims made by government made without any sort of independent investigation. It is exactly for that reason that readership of blogs is exploding.

The irony of Swarens and Tully criticizing the Pence proposal can't be overlooked.  As Star editor and columnist, respectively, they are two of the worst offenders at taking what is told them by Indianapolis city officials and simply reporting it as true without any sort of investigation.  The Indianapolis Star has repeatedly failed in its duty to act as a watchdog of government and now they want to blame the government for its own failures.  In fact, when hired the Star's current editor said it would be her job to act as cheerleader for city government. To the detriment of Star readers, she's lived up to that promise.

Sorry...the problem is not Gov. Pence's proposal. Rather, the problem is the media not doing their job.


Hoosier in the Heartland said...

You're absolutely on target, Paul, and Pence is (was?) trying to capitalize on the "failure of the local press to do independent reporting".

It's still not right.

As The Daily Beast put it:
Q: When does the conservative governor of a majority-Republican state start to resemble an old-line Communist apparatchik?
A: When he uses taxpayer money to fund government-approved “journalism” to compete with privately-owned, independent news outlets.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Hoosier, I don't see putting information communicated by state government on a centralized website as being anything even remotely comparable to Pravda.

Government is not competing with journalism by doing what Pence is proposing. He's just communicating information in a more consolidated fashion than was done before.

I think your complaint is with the mainstream media not doing their job and regurgitating what's told to them by government. I agree with that complaint. But it's the media's fault not government.

Pete Boggs said...

The name "Just IN" implies what they originally announced they would do; breaking news. It's a problem & so is the idea of expanding government in any direction.

Paul K. Ogden said...


There are communications people in agencies all throughout state government who do press releases. If a press release isn't "breaking news" then it, by definition, is not a press release. The whole purpose of press releases, after all, is to "break news." The fact that an agency official points out something that is going on at the agency doesn't mean though that the mainstream media shouldn't do its job of verifying and investigating the information provided by the government source.

Pete Boggs said...

In the realm of that which is proportional & priority; the Governor made a good decision to terminate this poorly conceived idea.

This voter truly appreciates the consideration & would applaud further consideration of Common Core Lite, a state moratorium on bond debt or what a proponent on WIBC's morning show described as "tax exempt debt," & a list of girth reduction to Big-G's morbidly proportioned waste-line...

Paul K. Ogden said...

Sorry, Pete, still not buying it. I did communications for the Department of Insurance. There are scores and scores of communication directors, press secretaries and public information officers issuing press releases on what is going on in state government. Government communicating with the public and the media is a legitimate functioin that's been going on forever. That doesn't mean that the media should simply take everything said by government as gospel truth and not do independent investigation. Absolutely not But were it not for those press releases, the media wouldn't be prompted to cover about 1/2 the things they do.

What Pence wanted to do, put all this information in a centralized location, makes perfect sense. The problem wasn't the idea. The problem was the way it was sold...saying things like the resource would compete against the media gives the people the wrong idea.

You want a scandal in this area, go look at all the overpriced communication people state agencies have. Zoeller has about 3 employed, making in the high five figures. Why does he need those people? the salaries many of them far exceed what they can make in the private sector in the media and at other PR positions.

Pete Boggs said...

Paul: Not sure we disagree so much- press release functions are understood. It's more the name "Just IN" & claim they're "breaking news" that seems to cross a line in the public mind; some call optics, playing into the statist meme.

They were too clever by half & clumsy with enthusiasm for that which most citizens & taxpayers don't see as a benefit of public service.

Btownmoon said...

Agree with Paul that this was a major over-reaction. Every governmental agency employs at least 1 PR person. And this could have centralized that work and made it easier for the press (or what's left of it) to gain information and inform their readers.

That said, the Pence administration made some wording blunders.