Federal officials invited to participate in a public forum at the National Press Club last week about a lack transparency and media access under the Obama administration declined the invitation, further disappointing already frustrated journalists.

The October 3 event was pegged to a feature I wrote for the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, based on a survey of science journalists, which revealed that, despite the Obama administration’s promises to make the government’s science agencies more open and accessible, it has made only marginal improvement over the dark days of the Bush administration. Joining me on the panel were representatives of the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, Reporters Without Borders, and Politico, who all expressed exasperation with lingering secrecy.

The main concerns that journalists have revolve around the need to request permission from public affairs officers to speak with federal scientists or policymakers, slow response times to those requests, the need to have a public affairs officer listen in on interviews, and the sluggish processing of Freedom of Information Act requests (the one area in which the Obama administration has made good progress is the provision of public data online).

Even more disappointing, perhaps, was the fact that officials from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declined invitations, extended more than a month in advance, to participate in the event at the Press Club to address those concerns. With the exception of HHS press secretary Richard Sorian, they also declined to be interviewed on the record.

HHS drew criticism from journalists when it released an updated media policy in late September, about one week before the panel. The policy encourages employees “to speak to reporters about their work whenever possible and appropriate.” But it also advised that, “When approached by a reporter, HHS employees should work with their immediate supervisor and coordinate with the appropriate public affairs office/personnel in their agency,” thereby preserving one of journalists’ main gripes.

The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), which has begun a series of quarterly conversations with HHS to discuss its members’ concerns, “has not taken an overall position on the HHS media policy,” according to September 29 blog post on its website, although it added that, “AHCJ fundamentally believes that anyone who wants to talk to a reporter should be free to do so. We object to anything that obstructs such interactions.”

In a separate post, the group noted, “The guidelines do not state whether a media representative must or should listen in on interviews with HHS employees. They also do not address whether reporters from large and small media outlets should be treated equally.” Sorian addressed both points during our interview, however, saying that there is no requirement that public affairs personnel sit-in on interviews:

I have been encouraging press staff that sit-in on interviews to be there for one purpose only: to help with follow-ups requests that arise during the interviews. They should not be a participant in the interview, which is between the reporter and the subject-matter expert. They can assist in terms of gathering information that’s requested during the course of the interview, but I don’t want them to insert themselves into the interview process. That’s not a good practice.

As for the handling of different outlets, Sorian said, “We don’t triage based on national versus regional, big publications versus small publications, or trade press versus general media. We get requests from all different directions. We do try to answer requests from credentialed media as quickly as possible, but it’s not always easy to know who’s credentialed media.”

The first question that public affairs staffers ask is about a reporter’s deadline. The next is about his or her publication. If it’s not one that they’ve heard of, staffers will ask for more detail about when and where it’s published and who reads it. HHS tries to give priority in its responses to news reporters over representatives of advocacy organization, Sorian added, “but it’s not as simple as it sounds like it should be.”

Indeed, Sorian was a senior policy adviser at HHS from 1993 to 1998, and said that when he returned to the department in August 2010, he was stunned by the proliferation of media outlets focused on health care and related issues. “I was overwhelmed by the volume of information that’s being both produced and requested,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance between the amount of information that we’re asked for and that amount we can provide, but we try to provide information as quickly as possible.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.