Covering the Health Care Fight

CDC official sends troubling message to employees about media questions

September 13, 2017
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AN OFFICIAL WITH THE CENTERS FOR Disease Control and Prevention has instructed employees not to speak directly with members of the press, Axios’ Sam Baker reported yesterday. Several health journalists quickly condemned the CDC move, calling it “really disturbing” and a “gag order,” among other critiques:

Axios published text from a late August email by a CDC public affairs officer that directs staff to route any correspondence with journalists—“everything from formal interview requests to the most basic of data requests”—through the communication office at its Atlanta headquarters:

“The message—sent by public affairs officer Jeffrey Lancashire and dated Aug. 31—instructs all CDC employees not to speak to reporters, ‘even for a simple data-related question’… Lancashire did not respond to requests for comment about the policy. But I’d love to know what harm was being done by CDC employees answering ‘the most basic of data requests.’”

David Nather, Axios’ managing editor, received notice of the communications change from a concerned CDC employee. “It does seem like a break from past practices at CDC,” Nather tells CJR. “We’re usually coming to them for routine data requests—not comment on administration policies.”

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Baker reported on the email in his morning Axios Vitals newsletter. He tells CJR that the CDC’s new communication instructions—“even for a simple data-related question,” he noted—stood out.

“This is the last line of communication you want to close,” Baker tells CJR. “Just for the sake of accuracy of a story, it seems like a good time for them to be available.”

This is genuinely disturbing. The idea that someone at CDC headquarters needs to sign off on responses to basic data requests shows a level of media control beyond which I have ever seen. What’s next?

Last week, CJR reported on the “information blockade” confronted by health-care journalists seeking information from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Several journalists spoke with CJR about their frustrations obtaining information or substantive responses from health agencies under the Trump administration. A statement to CJR from HHS said that the department averages between 6,000 and 7,000 interviews annually.

“HHS aims to respond in a timely manner to reporter inquiries,” that statement reads. “We do make policy experts available to the media and we contact reporters as often as necessary to provide additional context and to seek connections if information reported is inaccurate.”

Following Baker’s story for Axios, ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein tweeted, “It really is hard to see any legitimate justification for this.” Ornstein amplified his outrage in an email to CJR.

“This is genuinely disturbing,” writes Ornstein. “The idea that someone at CDC headquarters needs to sign off on responses to basic data requests shows a level of media control beyond which I have ever seen. What’s next?”

Ornstein isn’t alone in his concern. A number of health journalists weighed in after Baker’s report. Here’s Jason Ukman, managing editor at STAT News:

And the Boston Globe’s Felice Freyer:

Beth Joyner Waldron, a health policy analyst who has also given talks on behalf of the CDC and CMS, tells CJR that having access to experts at CDC is essential for both writing and fact-checking. Restricted access raises the possibility of important stories not being published, or being published without fully verified data, says Waldron. Either is a problem for the public whose health the CDC is supposed to help protect.

If a CDC employee is making a public presentation and a reporter wants to double-check a figure, does this mean the employee can’t provide a factual answer?

Freyer, the Boston Globe reporter, also chairs the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right To Know Committee. While having to go through a press office is nothing new, says Freyer, “the edict described in Axios, if true, makes the requirement especially stringent.” She also notes that the new CDC rule doesn’t conform to existing HHS policy, which calls for employees to “coordinate” with the press office whenever “releasing information that has the potential to generate media or public interest.” And she shares Waldron’s verification concerns.

“If a CDC employee is making a public presentation and a reporter wants to double-check a figure,” says Freyer, “does this mean the employee can’t provide a factual answer?”

Faced with what seems like an expanding information blockade, health reporters should push back where and when they can—a step Baker took in his newsletter.

“If you work at the CDC and have any insight,” wrote Baker, “go ahead and communicate directly with me.” After all, that’s what enabled Axios to break the news in the first place.

CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.

RELATED: WashPo reporter gets Trump administration statement on health care. You can probably guess what happened an hour later.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.