Twice in the last three months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered reporters not to name the agency officials participating in media conference calls, frustrating a number of the journalists involved.
The latest incident happened Tuesday, when the EPA arranged a teleconference in order to discuss a long-awaited plan to regulate coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for electricity that contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, and mercury. The agency announced the call mere hours before it took place, however. Moreover, the advisory it sent to reporters noted that:
Administrator [Lisa] Jackson may be quoted by name, on the record, for the entire press call. In addition to the administrator, EPA officials will be on hand to answer press questions on background only. If you use or publish answers from these officials, they may be quoted as senior EPA officials.
Robert McClure, the chief environmental correspondent at Investigate West, sent an e-mail to EPA press secretary Adora Andy shortly before the call, registering his objection and urging the agency to allow the other officials to be quoted by name. Later, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), where McClure is a member and sits on the First Amendment Task Force, sent a formal letter of complaint to the EPA, a copy of which was obtained by CJR.
“It goes against best practices in transparency for public officials to demand anonymity,” wrote SEJ president Christy George, who did not take part in the teleconference on Tuesday. “Public officials work for the public, and should be on the record. If someone does not wish to be on the record, that person should not speak at a press conference.”
The letter did credit the EPA for explaining the ground rules in its media advisory. In early February, the agency insisted on the same anonymity policy at the beginning of another teleconference (that time about its 2011 budget) without giving reporters any prior warning. In both cases, however, reporters complained that the rules inhibited their ability to report the story. In a blog post after the call on Tuesday, James Bruggers, a reporter at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote:
My turn to ask a question came at the end, and I used it to object, saying my news organization would not allow me to use anonymous sources that way, and I asked why EPA had decided to run the press conference like that. Andy [the EPA press secretary] told me she’d get back to me “off-line.”
I still would welcome an answer.
Anonymity wasn’t the only problem, however. Transparency was also an issue, reporters said, because Andy did not reveal the names of the two other agency officials taking part in the call until near the end of the teleconference, after a number of journalists had complained.
“I sent her an e-mail during the call that said, ‘Hey, wait a second, it’s one thing for you to insist that we not identify these people by name. But it’s another thing for me to not even know who is talking to me,’” said Ken Ward, Jr., a reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. “It could’ve been the darn janitor for all I knew.”
Even when Andy identified the two officials, a number of reporters said that she rattled off their names quickly and unintelligibly, without adding their titles or areas of expertise (not to mention the fact that, by that point, it was impossible for reporters to remember who had said what). As it turns out, however, both were senior officials and, in what some journalists called adding insult to injury, the EPA later issued a press release about the coal-ash regulation plan that quoted one, Mathy Stanislaus, by name. (Likewise, after the February teleconference, the agency posted an audio recording of the call online, which identified those involved.)
“We don’t use a lot of anonymous source stuff here at the Gazette, and these are high-level people,” Ward said. “It isn’t like this is some inspector out in some field office who has never talked to a reporter before. These are sophisticated professionals who have been in and out of government for a long time. They are completely capable of answering on-the-record questions from reporters, and that’s the way it ought to work.”