We surveyed a random sample of members of SEJ, the Association of Health Care Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, and Investigative Reporters and Editors on several issues, including the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests, access to experts, and overall transparency. Responses were anonymous and nearly four hundred journalists responded out of the roughly 2,100 selected to participate. (Survey results reflect the opinions of those who responded, and may not reflect the opinions of the entire sample.) Those who responded were seasoned, with nineteen years in journalism on average, including an average of fourteen years covering science, environment, or health beats. Most respondents were either full-time staffers or freelancers for print or online publications.
To some extent, the survey contradicts the impressions of journalists who complain that the situation is worse under Obama than it was under Bush. Neither administration was rated “strong” or “very strong” in any category by a majority of respondents. But overall, Obama received higher marks in nearly every category. Thirty percent gave Obama a “poor” or “very poor” grade on overall transparency and access to information, compared to 44 percent for the Bush administration. Most—42 percent—gave Obama a “fair” grade overall.
Likewise, Obama got better marks than Bush in four specific categories of transparency and access: interview permissions, interview minders, online databases, and processing foia requests. Unsurprisingly, given his directive to make more government information available online, Obama showed the greatest amount of improvement over Bush in the databases category, with 31 percent giving the administration a “strong” or “very strong” grade. Progress in the other categories was small to insignificant, however, and in each one most respondents gave both Obama and Bush of “poor” or “very poor.” Respondents with more experience tended to have harsher opinions, giving the Obama administration generally lower marks.
Marginal progress, however, does not an open government make, and the fact that a third of survey participants said Obama is basically doing a poor job overall does not bode well for the free flow of information. His administration is clearly trying, just not quite as hard as he suggested it would.
Felice Freyer, for instance, who chairs the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee, says the committee’s effort to fight secrecy has followed a course nearly identical to the one described by leaders of SEJ. In April 2010, the association began a series of meetings and phone calls with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about improving access to federal experts. But progress has been difficult to elusive.
Responding to Obama’s calls for openness, the FDA created a Transparency Task Force a few months after his inauguration. The health-care association joined ten other journalism organizations and more than two dozen individual journalists to send a letter to the task force demanding that it end the requirements that journalists obtain permission to conduct an interview, and that public information officers listen to interviews. Six months later, representatives of the association met with Jenny Backus, who became the top press secretary at HHS, to voice some of the same concerns. Backus defended the department’s policies requiring interview permissions and minders, but expressed a desire to work with the press. “She gave us her line about, ‘We really want to help reporters, and we believe in transparency,’ ” Freyer says. “She even told me that HHS believed the regional media were important, and that it wasn’t just talking to The Washington Post and The New York Times. But she also promised us a list of all the media contacts in HHS, and then never delivered. She talked about having us come to meet with the department’s pubic information officer at this convention in September. She said she’d look into it, and then never did. So she never really followed up on most of what she promised.”