A survey of science, health, and environmental journalists, conducted by CJR and ProPublica, suggests that while his record so far is more mixed than the anecdotal evidence from journalists indicates, President Obama has clearly not lived up to his promise on transparency and access. As has been the case on many fronts with Obama, the expectations among journalists that things were going to improve were so high, a failure to live up those expectations was almost inevitable.
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.