1st Amendment Fight Pits Media, Labor Department Over Jobs Data Rules

Labor Department calls restrictions cybersecurity, while news outlets fret over mistakes, privacy.

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As if there weren't reason enough to be nervous on jobs day. News reports on future government employment figures could be riddled with errors, while the government tramples the First Amendment rights of the reporters themselves.

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That was what representatives from the journalism industry said at a Wednesday House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing that addressed new Labor Department protocol for how the monthly employment report is released.

"Under the DOL proposal, the government would own and control the reporters' notebook. This is an unheard of intrusion of government into one of [our] most cherished freedoms," said Daniel Moss, executive editor for economy and international government at Bloomberg News, in his testimony before the committee.

He's talking about a new policy introduced in April by the Labor Department. On jobs report day each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a Labor Department agency that releases the monthly jobs data, currently releases the information to a select group of credentialed news outlets—at the latest count, 17—at 8 a.m., giving them a half-hour to write their stories before they are allowed to transmit them, in what is called the "press lock-up." But the Labor Department recently decided that lock-up reporters would be allowed to write and transmit those stories only on computers, software, and Internet lines provided by the government. The changes are slated to go into effect on July 6, the day that the June jobs numbers are released.

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"No administration anywhere should have access to a reporter's thoughts, drafts, or notes as a condition of covering the news, let alone news of such importance," Moss told committee members.

Aside from the First Amendment implications, the new policy may simply make for worse reporting, said another industry advocate, with the potential to negatively affect markets.

"Without their own equipment, pre-loaded spreadsheets, and custom software to digest the data, journalists would type this information relying on memory or handwritten notes. This dramatically increases the chance of 'fat finger' errors finding their way to the public," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, speaking on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, in her testimony. Those errors could roil markets that respond to news on a split-second basis, she added.

The BLS, for its part, says that it is merely maintaining security surrounding the highly sensitive data.

As news outlets bring in increasingly advanced hardware and software, the BLS says it has difficulty ensuring that its data is sufficiently safe from early transmission. Carl Fillichio, a senior adviser for communication and public affairs at the Labor Department, testified today that hardware problems in the past have contributed to inadvertent early releases of jobs information.

He also noted that fast-moving markets may tempt news organizations to break embargoes.

"The rapid speed at which markets can integrate information has strengthened the financial incentive to violate the terms of pre-release access for the purpose of providing non-public data to paid subscribers," said Fillichio in his testimony.

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However, the policy may not be entirely set in stone. Concerned news organizations and the Labor Department are engaged in talks, working to iron out their differences. Until then, financial journalists may just have to work on their typing skills, hoping that a slip of the finger doesn't send the Dow falling—or spiking—for no reason.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at dkurtzleben@usnews.com.