KELOWNA - Is the Interior Health authority a transparent and open government organization, readily accessible to the media, or an impenetrable bureaucracy with a tightly controlled and scripted media message?
It depends which side of the divide you’re on.
On Tuesday, Darshan Lindsay, manager of public affairs for the Interior Health Authority, took board members through the results of her department’s first-ever media survey conducted in December.
She told the board that, while generally pleased with the department’s performance, there is room for improvement and accurate and current data is vital to the organization because of the rapidly changing face of media, specifically the rise of news websites.
“We need to understand their needs because their audience is ultimately our audience as well,” she said. “This is invaluable in making future communications decisions. Previous practice of scanning media clippings and websites were given no significant analysis.”
Based on 59 responses, representing 27. 6 per cent of the e-mail survey group, Lindsay pointed to the highlights; 69 per cent of journalists found it was easy to get information from the health authority and 65 per cent said it met their needs.
Chris Walker, a CBC radio journalist and host of the current affairs program Daybreak South, has a divergent view of the survey results, the performance of the health authority in particular and the state of government communications in general.
Walker said some journalists from his own newsroom completed the survey and he's not surprised at the levels of satisfaction it found. He regards the health authority as one of the more responsive and helpful government organizations he and his colleagues have to deal with.
“In general, our relationship with them is good, especially with public health information. They will offer up medical health officers readily. We usually get to talk to people who know things and aren’t communications officers,” said Walker, adding the relationship changes when there isn’t a shared interest in spreading the information. “It tapers off when you start talking about policy and funding allocations. Perhaps understandably, they are less responsive.”
But Walker’s opinion changes sharply over another highlight from the survey; 78 per cent of journalists would consider using so-called publication-ready stories and press releases, a fact he says reflects more poorly on journalists than the organizations that create them and send them out.
“That’s shocking to me. That number should be zero but it happens in all kinds of media,” Walker said, using the Kelowna Daily Courier as an example, but adding they are by no means the only culprit. “I use the Daily Courier because it’s the biggest daily in the region. You will see a story that says Special to the Daily Courier but it’s a press release reprinted but with no identification. It’s bad practise and we shouldn’t do it but if we do, we should say that we do.”
Lindsay, a former journalist herself in both Kelowna and Kamloops, told the board some of the biggest challenges her team faced are reflected in the results around the use of communications officers as spokespersons and the timeliness of responses to requests for information.
Just 36.2 per cent of journalists are satisfied using them for comment while just 40 per cent would accept a written statement rather than wait for a live interview.
Walker said the much lower numbers show that journalists feel they are getting the run-around from government organizations when they are told an expert is unavailable and are offered those alternatives.
“Not available is a great trick of language. There is no question those tactics are used to delay and obfuscate although that doesn’t happen as much with the health authority,” he said. “Everyone is available, unless maybe if they are in a submarine. I can call them on a cell if they are on the beach in Costa Rica. If they are not available, I want to know why not and I want to know who the other people in the organization who are qualified to talk."
Walker said journalists themselves must accept some of the blame for sometimes taking the easy way out.
“We are our own worst enemy. The more budgets of news organizations are cut, the less resources we have to get the real story and the more likely we are to accept publication-ready stories,” he said.
Walker believes the trend toward information micro-management by government does not gain them the payback they are hoping for.
“In some crisis management situations it probably is effective and I’m thinking of the Maple Leaf case and listeria,” he said. “But in terms of building trust with communities, I think people see right through it. It increases people’s skepticism about the role of government and cynicism around politicians. People crave authenticity.”
For her part, Lindsay told the health authority board her department is considering both short- and long-term ways to improve access by journalists to experts within the organization, possibly creating a physican expert pool and allowing communications officers to speak directly to media.
On the journalist’s side, Walker said his colleagues need to fight back with the only tools they have.
“You have to be transparent about the process you go through to try and get a story and that means naming the communications people who shut you down, describing the hoops you jumped through and persisting in following up requests,” he said. “The only tool we have is the truth about the process and shining a light on it.”
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