An Empty Seat

Government fails to show for science news, transparency event

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.”

Toward that end, HHS has made a number of changes to better accommodate reporters. It reversed a policy that prohibited reporters from sharing embargoed information with sources outside the agency providing the information. It released a list of all its public affairs officers and their contact information. It opens more lines on press calls and schedules them at times that suit reporters on both the West Coast and the East Coast. It holds calls especially designed for regional reporters (although all reporters are welcome). And it has tweaked the amount of information it includes in media announcements and advisories to give reporters a better idea of what’s in the offing, but still leave room for follow-up questions.

HHS has also begun to post statements online in cases, such as news about the Affordable Care Act, where dozens of reporters all have basically the same question or want to contact that same official. Many journalists feel like the administration has leaned too heavily on such statements, and the provision of online data in general, to claim the mantle of transparency while bypassing the media.

Here’s Sorian’s response:

I know there’s some frustration with that, but there are times when there’s really just no choice - where we’re not going to get to all the people who want the information and the interview … I do think that putting more information into the public realm through the web and social media is an incredibly positive development and that information can then be utilized by a wide variety of people.

By way of example, Sorian said that when a reporter requests information that seems like it would benefit the wider public, HHS will consider posting it online and sending other reporters the link. He stressed, however, that he tries to give the journalist who requested the information time to file his or her story, so that they will not “lose the exclusivity of their idea.”

In terms of announcements, Sorian added that reporters should also be aware of some rules that he has no power to change. Journalists are often annoyed, for instance, when HHS posts announcements after 4 p.m. (particularly on Fridays).

Sorian acknowledged that there are times when an agency does that to minimize attention, but much more often, he says, it has to with two factors. First, any announcement that could have an impact on financial markets must be posted when the markets are closed. Second, regulations can’t be announced until they are published in the Federal Register, which sometimes happens at the end of the day.

Having once been an AHCJ member himself, it was Sorian’s idea to strike up regular discussions with the group, a step that was appreciated more than my recent article for the magazine made clear. The November/December issue of CJR will carry a letter to the editor from Felice Freyer, who chairs AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and was a panelist at the Press Club event.

“It was Sorian who suggested the quarterly conversations with AHCJ leaders,” she writes. “At each one, he asks for details of our members’ experiences—positive and negative—with the media staff at the various HHS agencies. Sorian also volunteered to travel anywhere in the country to meet with local AHCJ chapters. Such efforts indicate that our complaints are being heard.”

Nonetheless, it was disappointing that Sorian could not find somebody to take part in the transparency panel at the Press Club. He had a prior engagement, he said, and couldn’t find a substitute—still, he did have a month’s notice. Regardless, Sorian deserves credit for being far more forthcoming than other federal officials.

The EPA didn’t respond to numerous calls and e-mails, and Rick Weiss, OSTP’s director of communications, began nearly every e-mail and conversation with, “Off the record…” All Weiss would say on the record is that I had erred on a few details in my magazine article.

In March 2009, President Obama sent OSTP director John Holdren a memo directing him to draft a plan to improve scientific integrity throughout the executive branch, a key provision of which was the development of a public communications strategy. Obama gave Holdren 120 days to complete the assignment, which wasn’t finished until December 2010, a year and a half late.

At that time, Holdren issued a memo that provided guidance to departments and agencies about how to improve scientific integrity and openness, giving them 120 days to report the actions they’d taken to develop and implement relevant policies. Because Obama’s original memo asked Holdren to confer with the heads of executive agencies and departments and recommend a plan for improving scientific integrity that included “Presidential action” (and because Weiss turned down my requests to interview Holdren), I mistakenly reported that at the time my article went to press, the plan was still not in place.

It turns out that Holdren’s December 2010 memo was, in fact, the plan (Weiss has not responded to questions about what type of executive action is taking place). I also mistakenly reported that in May 2011, Holdren had “once again extended the deadline for departments and agencies to submit draft policies,” believing that the December memo had requested finalized plans within 120 days when, in fact, it only required progress reports.

Furthermore, I reported that in August 2010, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Holdren’s office for a copy of the science integrity recommendations and related policy documents, and sued after two months passed without a response from OSTP. Weiss stressed that the recommendations were in draft, or deliberative, form at the time, so exempt from FOIA rules, and that OSTP nonetheless eventually released some of the requests materials (my article acknowledged the latter point).

Lastly, Weiss took issue with my statement that the media policies in some corners of the federal government “codify” the need to seek press-office permission for interviews or to have a press officer sit-in on interviews, arguing that Holdren’s 2010 memo did no such thing. In fact, my article never claimed that it did. Rather, it quoted a Society of Environmental Journalists’ complaint that the memo “legitimized” such practices by not strictly forbidding them.

What Holdren’s memo says is that, “Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work, with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office.” As Weiss, a former newspaper reporter, pointed out, departments and agencies can interpret that guidance in a variety of ways.

“But among the things it can mean is: ‘Hey, public affairs official, I’m going to be talking to someone from The Washington Post and will let you know how it goes,’” he wrote in a rare, on-the-record e-mail. “As you know, some agencies have already put out policies in response to Dr. Holdren’s memo that explicitly allow such behavior. Surely my former brethren do not think this an overly restrictive policy. As I mentioned in an earlier e-mail to you, even when I was at the Post we had to tell our bosses if we anticipated seeing ourselves in the news for some reason.”

Perhaps, but the reporter in Weiss should also remember how difficult, or simply impossible, it can be to sort out such details when federal officials won’t submit to on-the-record interviews. As I said at the National Press Club, journalists need to consider the government’s perspective from time to time. The feds aren’t necessarily “the bad guys.” But the fact that none of the invited officials could make time for such an opportune public forum dedicated to transparency and access doesn’t bode well for future relations.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.