Department of Labor change could regulate press freedom

By Stacey Welsh

Media organizations are fighting back against a U.S. Department of Labor press lock-up policy. The government basically wants to limit access to statistics like unemployment that businesses and financial news organizations would want to use. The labor secretary now wants journalists to work on computers the government supplies.

A"lock-up" is a Department of Labor-named 30-minute window where reporters could have access to economic data before it is made public. A new lock-up policy would require journalists to request press credentials ahead of time to get data from the government office. This means media organizations that already had credentials need to reapply. The department is not clear whether previously approved organizations have a good chance of receiving new credentials. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also says the government will require journalists entering press lock-up rooms to leave personal items like bags and cellphones outside. Some journalists feel this regulation is unnecessary and too invasive. 

The Washington Examiner reports the changes are in response to nontraditional news organizations not using data for journalistic purposes, but it does not cite an example of this. This policy could slow news reporting of labor statistics while unemployment is high.

Stricter lock-ups could simply be a new routine journalists must accept to gain advance access to data, but the policy also raises red flags. Could this open the door for more regulations?

The announcement came in April, and journalists would have to remove their software, hardware and dedicated lines from the Department of Labor by June 15. New department-issued press credentials and required use of department-provided computers begins July 6. That date led the Sunshine in Government Initiative to write a letter calling for the department to delay the start date to discuss alternatives. The organization, made up of other media-advocacy groups, including The Associated Press, the Radio-Television Digital News Association and the Online News Association, wants to know how this change will make news reporting more secure. 

The department does answer some questions on its website. It maintains it is doing journalists a favor by providing early access to data in any capacity. But many of the answers are limited to one sentence and don't offer additional information about journalists' concerns.

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