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SPJ and SEJ urge Biden administration to amend report that limits journalists’ access to federal scientists and information


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1/28/2022


CONTACT:
Rebecca Aguilar, SPJ National President, 317-361-4134, rebeccaaguilar50@gmail.com
Tim Wheeler, Chair, Freedom of Information Task Force, Society of Environmental Journalists, 410-409-3469, twheeler@bayjournal.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Director of Communications and Marketing, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists say a recent federal government report doesn’t go far enough in giving federal scientists the freedom to speak to journalists.

SPJ and SEJ sent a letter Wednesday to leaders of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy about the report, Protecting the Integrity of Government Science. The report lays out the Biden administration’s stance on ensuring scientific integrity in government.

The organizations praise the report for espousing as a fundamental principle that “federal scientists should be able to speak freely, if they wish, about their unclassified research, including to members of the press.”

But they point out that parts of the rest of the report undermine and effectively negate that principle by endorsing existing widespread agency policies and practices that specify media access to government scientists should be "in coordination with supervisors and public affairs officials." As a practical matter, that means interview and information requests are frequently delayed, inadequately responded to and often outright blocked.

“The majority of the report perpetuates the status quo and that just is not acceptable,” said Kathryn Foxhall, vice chair of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee. “There was a time not that long ago when journalists could call up a scientist directly on the phone and ask questions or interview them for a story, and the scientist felt empowered to do the interview. But there are so many policies and procedures in place today that make that extremely difficult to do. It severely limits government transparency. It stops the flow of information from elected officials to the public. In turn, it’s the citizens of this country who are most harmed by it.”

SPJ and SEJ cite an example from July, when the chief of staff of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention emailed all employees in that office reminding them that they were not authorized to answer reporters’ questions directly and that all queries from journalists were to be referred to the press office. That email came in the wake of news that four EPA scientists in that office had filed a whistleblower complaint alleging managers had improperly watered down their chemical risk assessments.

“Having public information officers act as ‘gatekeepers’ for interview and information requests limits — and in many cases prevents — the flow of information to journalists and the citizens of this country,” said SPJ National President Rebecca Aguilar. “Instead, we’re given carefully written talking points that only support the agency’s position.

“I am proud of the work Kathryn and SPJ’s FOI Committee are doing on this issue and happy to have such a great partner in SEJ, who is as passionate about government transparency and the free flow of information as we are,” Aguilar continued.

The letter concludes, "Even though your report is final, we urge you to amend or supplement it by stating, in the clearest and strongest terms possible, that federal scientists need no one's permission to share their research or knowledge with journalists and the public. It's fine to ask them to voluntarily inform communications offices of such contacts, but they shouldn't be required to report them or fear being chastised or disciplined for not doing so. The American public deserves the full story from their government scientists and other staff, not a sanitized version that's filtered through a political or policy lens."

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund or give to the SPJ Foundation.

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