Department of Labor implements new "lock-up" policy for media

Amanda Simmons | Content Regulation | News | July 10, 2012

The U.S. Department of Labor began implementing parts of its new, slightly more-friendly media policy regarding journalists' access to embargoed job statistics. In response to publicized media concerns, the policy, which takes full effect on Sept. 5, gives credentialed reporters the option of using their own department-approved newsgathering equipment during the "lock-ups."

“We can’t compromise on security, but we were able to listen to a lot of feedback and to hold many spirited discussions with news organizations,” said Jennifer Kaplan, spokesperson for the labor department.

The department's news agreements govern so-called "lock-up" procedures, which traditionally have granted credentialed reporters – working without any outside communication – early access to certain job and unemployment information. The new policy preserves the ability of journalists to analyze and prepare the data on their own offline equipment until a labor official flicks a “master switch,” transmitting the reports through news agencies’ or the department’s secure lines.

“Participation in [Department of Labor] lock-ups is an opportunity, not a right,” states the July 5 policy, which requires news media organizations to demonstrate how their participation in the embargo will further the department's objectives when applying for press credentials. “Protecting the integrity and confidentiality of the data through the conclusion of each embargo period is of paramount importance.”

News media organizations can now opt to use their own standardized hardware that is directly shipped to the labor department from a "well-known manufacturer." Department equipment will also be available during the lock-ups, according to the new policy. Regardless of which option journalists choose, they can only bring “paper materials” into the lock-up facilities; government-owned pens and pencils will be provided.

The labor department has started implementing most of the new provisions. The new policy allows television reporters to go outside two minutes before the end of the embargo period to prepare live broadcasts, but during sound checks they can only speak a “code word” supplied by officials.

“The new agreement appears to address many of the journalists' concerns,” said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI). He added that SGI will monitor how the policy affects reporting.

SGI, which is a coalition of media organizations - including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - that advocates for greater government transparency, sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on May 8 urging her to reconsider the initial lock-up proposal.

The revised policy follows the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's June 6 hearing, which addressed concerns about the labor department's initial proposal and its free press implications.

“Requiring journalists to draft and publish stories using government-owned computers loaded with government-controlled software simply crosses a line the First Amendment clearly drew to separate the press from the government,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, in testimony on behalf of SGI. “We are committed to working with the Labor Department to find a resolution that serves the public interest.”

Carl Fillichio, senior adviser for communications and public affairs for the department, issued the earlier proposal on April 10, without inviting any input from the press. It originally ordered news media organizations reporting on employment data to use government-owned hardware, software, paper, pens and internet access during the lockup periods, which are held in the department's office in Washington, D.C.