Dan Jurcan, Owen Ullmann, and Dr. Ann Hollifield

Journalists and Spokespersons Must be Honest for Relationship to Work, Romanian and U.S. Journalists Conclude in Workshops in Two Cities

While government spokespersons and journalists do not always have the same goals, they can work with each other to the betterment of the public if both parties are honest and respect each other.

This was the conclusion of a group of Romanian and American journalists and government spokespersons and former spokespersons after five days of discussions in May in Bucharest and Poiana Brasov.

The Americans were part of a team of eight experts invited by the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia to participate in the meetings in Romania. The Cox Center organized the workshops at the request of the Romanian Ministry of Public Information.

The Americans met with approximately 40 government spokespersons and journalists in Bucharest and approximately 35 regional government spokespersons and journalists in Poiana Brasov.

In addition, the American group spent 45 minutes with Romanian Prime Minister Mr. Adrian Nastase and another 45 minutes with Romanian President Mr. Ion Iliescu talking about the relationship between journalists and press spokespersons in Romania.

The group also met with Cristian Hadji Culea, president and general manager of Romanian Television, and Dragos Seuleanu, the president and director general of Romanian Radio.

"I have no tolerance for when a government spokesperson lies to me," USAToday Washington Editor Owen Ullmann said.

"I don't like reporters when they lie to me," said Kathryn Gest, executive vice president of Powell Tate, a public affairs firm in Washington who has worked as a spokesperson in the U.S. Senate.

"Being honest is very important," said Jeannie Layson, who served as press secretary for Georgia Governor Zell Miller. "Knowing what you don't know and admitting it is very important."

"From the point of view of the administrator, we want ethical journalists," said Dan Jurcan, who holds the title of secretary of state within the Romanian Ministry of Public Administration."Nobody has to be afraid of transparency."

The American team consisted of :

Aaron Epstein, longtime national correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers now serving as a reporting coach for Post-Newsweek publications and providing legal services to low income clients in the District of Columbia. Epstein is co-author of A Year in the Life of the Supreme Court.

Kathryn Gest, executive vice president at Powell Tate in Washington, where she manages international public affairs. She has more than 25 years of experience as a journalist and congressional staff member. She was press secretary to Senator William Cohen of Maine and managing editor of Congressional Quarterly, the weekly news magazine about Congress and politics. She has advised foreign governments and corporations both foreign and domestic.

Rhonda Grayson, a producer for the International News Source desk at CNN. Grayson has worked as a reporter in local television in Louisville and for the International Desk as well as News Source at CNN. She works with CNN affiliates all over the world, including three in Romania, in her current position.

C. Ann Hollifield, associate professor in the Department of Telecommunications in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Hollifield has worked as a broadcast and print journalist and is coordinator of the Michael J. Faherty Broadcast Management Laboratory in the Grady College.

Jeannie Layson, vice president at Dickerson Communications in Atlanta. Layson has worked on the gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns of Senator Zell Miller and served as his assistant press secretary when he was governor.

Larry Lipman, Palm Beach Post bureau chief in the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau. He is a former president of the National Press Club, a former president of the Regional Reporters Association, and former president of the Capitol Press Club. He has worked at The Orlando Sentinel and the Frederic (Md.) News-Post.

Robert Sims, publisher of the Crockett Times in Alamo, Tennessee. Sims is former White House Deputy Press Secretary and president of the National Geographic Magazine Group. He is author of The Pentagon Reporters, a book about journalists who cover the military.

Owen Ullmann, Washington editor at USAToday, where he supervises State Department, Pentagon and economics coverage. Ullmann was senior news editor in the Washington Bureau of Business Week magazine and a member of the Washington Bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers. He also has reported for the Associated Press, first as automotive writer and then as chief economics correspondent in Washington.

In Bucharest, Romanian participants represented many of the ministries of the Romanian government and journalists working in the capital city. In Poiana Brasov, the Romanians were drawn from regional government and the regional media.

The seminars covered the organization of the offices of government spokespersons and of newsrooms, the nature of the relationship between spokespersons and journalists, the legal basis for public access to records and meetings, and the ways in which journalists and spokespersons work in times of natural and political crises.

The University of Georgia's Dr. Hollifield moderated the sessions, posing questions to the American and Romanian participants seated at the front table and seeking feedback from the audience.

"I think there is an obligation to inform," Sims said of the role of the government spokesperson. "You are doing the public business, and the public has a right to know what you are doing."

"Journalists don't like it when a spokesperson lies and doesn't answer questions," said CNN's Grayson. "You feel like you are dealing with a politician and not the government spokesperson."

"My role as a reporter is to be the eyes and ears of the people who are not able to ask the questions," said Cox Newspaper's Lipman. "My role is ask the questions and report the answers. It is not my role to take sides in a debate."

"One of the reasons for having a free press and free speech is as a way to seek the truth," said Epstein.

Romania is in the process of implementing legislation that will guarantee citizen access to government records and public access to government meetings. The legislation was the topic of a lively discussion in Bucharest.

"Access to information should be the rule and limitations the exception." Valeriu Guguianu, an expert on information policy in the Romanian government, said at that session.

"After 50 years of communism, a cult of secrecy should be replaced with a cult of transparency," Jurcan of the Ministry of Public Information said.

A recurring theme of the discussions was conflict between the journalists and the spokespersons, with the Romanian participants on each side vocal in their criticisms of their counterparts.

Ioana Avadani, executive director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, was willing to admit to journalistic shortcomings and call for self criticism. "There is not a stronger supporter of self-regulation (on the part of the press) than I," she said.

The American participants took the conflict a bit more in stride.

"I'd like to think that our goals are the same," Gest said of journalists and government spokespersons. "We just come at it in different ways. I wanted people to believe me, so I tried to give them information that was accurate."

"Treat them the way you want to be treated," Lipman advised the journalists dealing with the government spokespersons.

In Poiana Brasov, one of the more lively discussions centered on coverage of crises. Moderator Hollified differentiated between the crises that are external to the government, such as those caused by natural or man-made disasters, and those that are internal, such as political scandals.

As a case study, journalists who covered an ecological disaster in the cities of Baia Mare and Satu Mare in northern Romania in May of 2000 discussed the difficulties they had getting accurate information from government.

"The journalists were confronted with a lack of information," Sorin Martin Veres said. "We were told by government: ‘Wait. We don't have the results to release.'" The consequence, the journalists said, was confusion and misrepresentation in the press reports.

Vasile Dincu, the minister of Public Information, at whose invitation the Cox Center organized the meetings in Bucharest and Poiana Brasov, said he has studied the Satu Mare case carefully and instituted plans to make sure government spokespersons didn't make the same mistake in the future.

The American team had some concrete advice for how to handle internal political crises, though they acknowledged the advice wasn't always followed by government officials.

"Keep the negative news cycle as short as possible," Layson advised. "Tell it now and tell it all."

"The best way to get off the front page is through it," Sims added. "Get all the negative news out immediately."

The May workshops in Romania were but a continuation of a series of connections between that country and the Cox Center.

The Cox Center, a unit of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, organized a workshop in 1998 at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, on the implications of copyright.

Dr. Tudor Vlad, who founded the Department of Journalist at Babes-Bolyai University after the fall of communism in Romania in 1989, has been a visiting research scientist in the Cox Center since 1999.

The Center also operates an exchange program with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication Studies at the University of Bucharest. Dr. Hollifield taught a class in media management to graduate students in the School of Journalism during the week before she moderated the workshops in Bucharest and Poiana Brasov.

Dr. Vlad and Cox Center Director Dr. Lee B. Becker led the American delegation to Romania in May and participated in the meetings in Bucharest and Poiana Brasov.

Following the meetings in Bucharest and Poiana Brasov, Dr. Vlad and Dr. Becker traveled to Iasi, where they met with city and university officials. Iasi is a sister city to Athens, where the University of Georgia is located.

Dr. Becker gave a lecture to students and faculty of Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iasi, outlining key characteristics of the American media system and of journalism education in the United States. The Iasi University offers a journalism program.

Drs. Becker and Vlad also were the guests on a 40-minute talk show taped for later broadcast by Television Romania Iasi. They discussed the media in the U.S., journalism education, and the relationship between journalists and government spokespersons.