When science loses its voice

National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier speaks during a January 28 press conference at the Department of Health and Human Services on the coordinated public health response to the 2019 coronavirus. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 25, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducted a media telebriefing on the coming intensification of covid-19 outbreaks in the US. At the time, the country had just a few dozen confirmed cases. Still, Messonnier warned, “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.” 

Markets, which had declined the previous day, tumbled further; the Washington Post, drawing on anonymous accounts from presidential aides, reported that Donald Trump “believes extreme warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spooked investors.” Another CDC official professed the belief that “the immediate risk here in the United States remains low.” The day after Messonnier’s comments, Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and, as reporters observed, the CDC’s voice seemed to take a back seat. Messonnier held four more coronavirus telebriefings, the most recent of which took place more than a month ago, on March 9. 

“Nancy Messonnier told it like it is,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the CDC, told the New York Times before Messonnier’s last telebriefing. “And she was 100 percent right, and they silenced the messenger.” The Times requested interviews with CDC officials for a March 13 story on coronavirus death estimates, then reported that the center had “declined interview requests…and referred a request for comment to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.”

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A March 19 foia request from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University asked the CDC for information regarding its policies concerning employees’ ability to speak with the press and the public. foia requires a response within twenty business days (thirty if “unusual circumstances” are invoked). The CDC responded with a projected release date of September 21; on April 2, the Knight Institute sued

“There have been reports that messaging from President Trump and the White House has been inaccurate or missing important context,” Stephanie Krent, a lawyer litigating the Knight Institute’s case against the CDC, says. “I think it’s now more critical than ever to understand what restrictions are put on CDC employees.” Ultimately, the concern is the public’s ability to understand exactly where information is coming from and to judge its accuracy themselves, a process in which the media is intrinsically involved. “Restrictive press policies limit journalists’ access to federal employees who would otherwise want to speak out,” she says.

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DURING THE PANDEMIC, whether the CDC’s voice has been silenced has become something of a story in itself. A March 25 story by NPR science reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce called the agency “conspicuously silent,” and quoted Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, who told her, “We are less safe because the CDC doesn’t have the voice and the role it needs to have.” On April 1, citing a report from the New York Times that federal health officials were required to coordinate statements with Pence’s office, the Union of Concerned Scientists filed a scientific integrity complaint with the CDC, and “urge[d] the CDC to allow its experts to speak with the media.” Days later, in an interview for STAT, Helen Branswell asked CDC director Robert Redfield about “an agency gone quiet,” as a headline put it.

“Your agency is invisible,” Branswell remarked at one moment.

“You may see it as invisible on the nightly news, but it’s sure not invisible in terms of operationalizing this response,” Redfield replied.

Concerns that CDC officials are being muzzled seem especially notable under an administration characterized by a brazen disregard for facts, science, and truth itself. (Throughout the pandemic, variations on the phrasethe CDC did not respond to a request for comment” have abounded. The CDC did not respond to a request for comment for this story, either.) However, journalists and health watchdogs warn that scientists at the CDC and other government agencies have been selectively silenced for years.

In a 2015 report, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists outlined challenges to transparency, access, and communication between journalists and government bodies. The report included a poll of journalists, more than half of whom believed that the public was denied necessary information “because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.” One respondent replied that most of their interviews with CDC officials “are monitored.” Scientists, the report argued, “need to have the freedom to speak candidly with journalists—and hence the public—about their work. For example, if scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have apprehensions about a new strain of influenza or a tuberculosis outbreak, the public needs to have confidence that these scientists are communicating openly with the press and that the CDC’s response is based on science.” Last month, at least one SPJ chapter renewed the call for transparency, imploring the Trump administration to end speech restrictions for government health officials

“The SPJ and I have been working on this for a long time,” Kathryn Foxhall, a veteran healthcare reporter, says. “We couldn’t get any traction on the issue, and suddenly now, with a pandemic, a few people are listening.”

The pandemic requires an unprecedented level of clarity at a moment of equally unprecedented restrictions on access to federal public health scientists, says Michelle Levander, the founding director of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. “I don’t know that there’s been a time where that kind of effort at [narrative] control has been coupled with a public health emergency of this kind,” she says. There is an urgency “for really clear, evidence-based, honest communication.”

As journalists from all beats are reassigned to coronavirus coverage, the lack of access to information morphs into another kind of challenge. According to Levander, the number of journalists on health beats has declined in favor of general-assignment reporters, which means most are covering the pandemic without the depth of knowledge and source contacts that reporters with a specific beat cultivate. “Journalists have been deemed as providing an essential service in this pandemic, and they need certain tools to provide that service. One is unhampered access to information and experts in our government,” she says.

Degrees of access changed as public relations took off, according to Foxhall. “We began to get this stuff from agencies saying that you have to go through the press office,” she remembers. “I was in a newsroom then, and we were disturbed.” As the 2015 SPJ report detailed, this practice has become commonplace, galvanized through public information officers who limit journalist access through preapproval processes, opening “the door to political influence [that] slows down or reduces public access to information.”  

Dr. Glen Nowak previously worked at the CDC as the director of media relations and communications director for the organization’s National Immunization Program, a tenure that spanned from 1999 to 2013 and included the H1N1 pandemic. Over that period, Nowak says, journalists who wanted to talk to scientists would have to make a request, which ultimately ended up at the CDC Office of Media Relations. “That system was there for a number of reasons,” Nowak says, noting that, in the absence of a public directory, it can be difficult for journalists to identify whom to talk to in the first place. Over time, as elected officials turned over, Nowak says, “each administration that came in often wanted to tighten access to the media”—a dynamic he attributes, in part, to campaign communications staff being appointed to government agencies. “Those people are the talent pool they draw from,” Nowak says. 

Foxhall, the healthcare reporter, began her career in the 1970s, in the earliest days of the hiv/aids crisis, in Washington, DC, where she resides today. “When we wanted some expertise or just the slightest little answer to something, we picked up the phone and called someone at the CDC,” she recalls. “Nobody told you who you couldn’t talk to. That would have been unthinkable.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified STAT reporter Helen Branswell. CJR regrets the error.

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Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based journalist who focuses on lesser-told stories. She writes broadly about cities, politics, culture, economies, business, and travel. You can reach her at www.cinnamon-janzer.com.