Foxhall named Wells Key winner for work against controls on reporters through public information offices


The Society of Professional Journalists honors Kathryn Foxhall with the Wells Memorial Key. This award is the highest honor for an SPJ member and was officially presented Sept. 4 at the President’s Awards Ceremony during the SPJ21 conference. Foxhall was previously informed of her honor over Zoom by friends and colleagues.

“Thank you,” said Foxhall, a member of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee.

“We now have over four million pandemic dead. For over two decades public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, have controlled public scrutiny of themselves. Reporters are kept out of buildings, not allowed to speak to anyone without the bosses’ censors, and often not allowed to speak to anyone at all,” Foxhall said.

“Psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about the human bias of, ‘What you see is all there is.’ The press gets what it can and mostly does not tell the public about the controls, preferring to believe whatever we get is all there is,” Foxhall continued. “Now the nation finds our structures were not prepared for a vast crisis. The U.S. has lost life expectancy at a rate 8.5 times higher than the average of 16 other high-income nations.

“Similar controls have surged in state and local governments, police departments, schools, businesses and other entities, public and private. The restraints have become part of the culture,” she said. “This is deep corruption for both the people in power and the press. Freedom of expression is not just an ideal or a liberty. It’s how we cooperate, shield people from abuse and survive.”

Foxhall has been an active member of SPJ for nearly 12 years. Within that time, she has given many years of dedicated service to the Washington D.C., Pro Chapter and is one of its most active and participatory members.

Around 2009, she began communicating with SPJ about excessive controls over public information officers, an issue that received very little attention previously. Almost singlehandedly, she gradually convinced others of the great harm caused by employee gag policies and the fear-based censorship they create.

The PIO issue was on the FOI Committee’s meeting agenda at an SPJ conference the following year because of her as efforts. Other journalism organizations also took notice and began pushing back against the controls. She presented the issue and insisted the biggest need was for some research to document the extent of the problem.

From this, two surveys were conducted: one with Washington, D.C.-area reporters and another with members of the National Association of Government Communicators. This prompted a series of annual surveys — which were timed to be released during Sunshine Week — documenting the relationship between reporters and PIOs, showing how the situation has continually worsened.

Foxhall inspired initiatives during Sunshine Week, including a letter issued to the Obama administration, which resulted in an in-person meeting between SPJ and White House staff, a new webpage with resources, events at the National Press Club and more.

She has written extensively about the PIO problem and has been quoted in Quill, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review and dozens of regional outlets. Foxhall has even created a committee dedicated solely to the issue through the D.C. chapter. Owing to her efforts, the Knight Columbia Institute made removing government-imposed gag orders its first “to-do” priority for the incoming Biden administration.

Foxhall is now working with SPJ Foundation Board member Frank LoMonte on identifying potential avenues for legal challenge to bring “test cases” that would clarify the First Amendment rights of employees to speak to journalists, and journalists’ rights to receive that information. She has been tireless in finding pro-bono legal representation for those brave enough to initiate legal challenges.

Friends and colleagues shared some of the many reasons for her nomination:

“Sometimes it takes just one person to lead the charge, to take the hits and confront doubt and apathy head on,” former SPJ President David Cuillier said. “She did this well, and for that she deserves the Society’s highest honor.”


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here