COLUMN: Eliminating the unexpected — how the provincial government manages the local media message

Provincial government managers and their elected bosses live behind a protective shield of communications staff.

Recently I wrote a story for the Star about some scientific and political issues connected to the Kootenay Lake fishery. This is a subject I knew very little about and I still have a lot to learn. But reporters are used to the process of having to educate ourselves instantly about an unfamiliar subject, and it is part of our job to do that as best we can.

I interviewed a few of the people involved — some of them scientists, some not. I needed to talk to the government, though, because they manage the fishery. So I emailed a provincial government manager here in Nelson and asked him if I could have a phone conversation with him that same day. Twenty minutes later he emailed back: “I’ll run it past our media folks and get back to you. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

But I knew that it would be a problem as soon as I read the words “media folks.”

Provincial government managers and their elected bosses live behind a protective shield of communications people (sometimes called public affairs officers) who intercept journalists and manage the message. You rarely get to actually talk to the accountable person, just the communications person who takes your emailed questions, finds some answers, and then emails those back. Ostensibly this system helps communication by making it more efficient, but in many cases it actually hinders it.

The communications person emailed me some good answers to the fishery questions I gave him, which he probably got from the manager I had tried to contact, and which were actually quite helpful, but I got them after the story deadline so I couldn’t use them.

But you don’t always get good answers. Sometimes they are one-liners that don’t really answer your questions, like the ones I got from the communications people about environment minister Mary Polak’s recent decision about Jumbo. Or about the government process around the Meadow Creek Cedar licence. In those cases the responses were too brief, too simple, and too late.

This is a fairly recent phenomenon. A decade ago, working for other media, both in print and radio, I regularly interviewed government people. I remember interviewing a local government manager about mountain caribou, and the minister for social services about welfare rates. It was easy. Phone them, ask for an interview, set up a time. They were accessible.

Those days are gone. Now, when I want to talk to a government manager who may work just down the street from me, I have to run my questions by email through a functionary in Victoria.

Recently one of those public affairs officers actually scolded me, by email, for ignoring the rules and trying to contact a government manager directly.

This policy of shielding the accountable people flies in the face of  the basics of newsgathering and of interviewing. When planning to interview someone I develop some of the questions in advance, but often the real information comes from questions you can’t predict, which grow out of the interview itself, and which you have to be on your toes enough to ask. Questions like:

• That’s interesting, could you elaborate on that?

• Could you give me an example of that so I can understand it better?

• When you say (insert technical term), what do you mean by that?

• Could you explain how that process works?

• How did you come to that decision?

That’s the level of conversation that is lost when you have to just email in your questions.

An interview is a type of conversation. Any good conversation includes questions and answers you don’t expect. Hiring communications officers and forcing us to talk to them rather than with the managers and elected officials—that’s the provincial government trying to eliminate the unexpected.

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