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.