April 29, 2024

Politicians have long stonewalled journalists. But recently, it’s gotten worse.

An Arizona legislator filed a restraining order on a journalist for knocking on their door. A Pittsburgh school board held virtual meetings long after the law allowing them expired. Politicians bypassed local reporters for partisan media outlets.

These are just a few instances of journalists being shut out of their efforts to cover public business and hold officials accountable.

Such reports led the Craig Newmark Center for 51ԹϹand Leadership at Poynter to convene a symposium to address the phenomenon. In late 2023, a group including public media leaders, entertainment and sports journalists, local reporters, political columnists, political advisers, editors, policy advocates and several Poynter leaders gathered in Miami at the offices of the Knight Foundation.

The group engaged in a day of discussion, where they reached much consensus, especially about a key finding: Despite challenging economic pressures, the best way to overcome attempts at shutting out journalists is a renewed commitment to beat reporting and source relationships.

That finding and other takeaways are being released today in a report that highlights the phenomenon of public officials and other sources shunning journalists — and offers advice on what journalists can do about it.

“Shut Out: Strategies for good journalism when sources dismiss the press” makes the case that growing adversity from public officials toward journalists is damaging not just to the journalism industry, but detrimental to the public trust.

“It has become a viable strategy for public officials who don’t want to be held accountable to simply not return calls (from news media),” said Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for 51ԹϹand Leadership. “If you’re really going to hold them accountable, you have to figure out alternatives. Otherwise, just reporting the ‘no comment,’ is going to leave the consumer in a state of confusion.”

You can read a complete PDF of the report, or you can read a serialized version on as the components of the report are rolled out through the week.

For easy reference, the report also includes a “Journalists’ Toolkit” that summarizes the group’s recommendations.

“We must recommit to the core values of beat reporting, recognize the value of talking with people less by Zoom appointment and more face-to-face so that our journalism is richer than short transactions,” Poynter president Neil Brown said in the report. “This will require a commitment of time and improved training on craft that feels out of reach in challenging economic times. But the long-term health of the business — the relevance and service to our audience relies on it.

“Good journalism that makes change in a community has value. We must remember the power of our work to improve people’s lives. That will ultimately be the thing that gets our audience to care, and will keep us relevant to citizens and to sources,” he said. “We have to find ways, as we’ve laid out in this report, to keep pushing to tell complete and fair stories.”

Poynter faculty Fernanda Camarena was one of the authors of the report, along with Mel Grau, director of program management.

“If we’re relying on one person to give us all the answers we need, we aren’t doing our job right,” Camarena said. “Our own jobs can beat us up and burn us out. But we have to fight through it and return to the foundation of our craft – find people with stories and information to share.”

She said that the report’s recommendation that newsrooms make a fresh commitment to beat reporting and source relationships may seem daunting in the face of a challenging news landscape troubled by layoffs and cuts.

“But we can’t let that stop us from serving our communities,” she said. “Investing in reporters – training them and giving them time to get into the field and develop sources – will help them do their jobs better. That should be a newsroom’s main objective.”

McBride said many journalists feel like they hit a brick wall when they get a ‘no comment.’

“The techniques in this report are all pathways around that brick wall,” she said. “Lots of people will document what’s happening. Lots of people will offer commentary on what’s happening. But one of the things that journalists do is track down the people who are responsible and get some answers.”

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
Barbara Allen

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