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Journalists Often Face Stonewalling at Science Agencies, New Survey Finds

SPJ, UCS release survey, host panel discussion at National Press Club

April 9, 2015

Carolyn S. Carlson, SPJ FOI Committee Member, 404-502-1638, ccarls10@kennesaw.edu
David Cuillier, SPJ FOI Chair, 520-248-6242 (MST), spjdave@yahoo.com
Aaron Huertas, Union of Concerned Scientists, 202-331-5458, AHuertas@ucsusa.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists and the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report today that finds science and environmental reporters struggle to obtain information from government agencies for their stories and often must go through a public information office (PIO) to contact subject matter experts within agencies to secure interviews.

The report, which included survey results from science writers, was announced today during a news conference and panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Speakers included SPJ Freedom of Information Committee members Carolyn S. Carlson and Kathryn Foxhall, Michael Halpern, program manager of the Center for Science and Democracy, and Kate Sheppard, senior reporter and environment and energy editor at the Huffington Post.

The survey, which Carlson led, was randomly sent to 1,667 journalists out of a pool of 8,000 who expressed interest in science, the environment, health and medicine, and garnered 254 responses. The margin of error for its findings are +/- 5.7 percent.

The survey found that:
• Almost three quarters (74.2%) of respondents said that PIOs require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees at least some of the time.
• More than half (52.2%) said that when they ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the PIO at least some of the time.
• 67.5% said they have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert at least some of the time.
• Despite some reporters’ positive working relationships with public information officers, a majority (56.8%) feel that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of the barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.

“The hope is that the survey will prompt both the science and journalism communities to find ways to work with agencies to ensure better transparency and openness,” Carlson said.

“Scientists play an important role in our democracy by providing critical expertise to decision makers and the American people,” said Deborah Bailin, a democracy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy who contributed to the survey as well as a recent scorecard of federal science agency media policies. “To fulfill this responsibility, they must be able to communicate freely with the media, the public, and their peers without interference from public information officers.”

A follow-up report including supplemental interviews with journalists and recommendations will be released in June.

“This survey shows the difficulty of getting information to the public because of excessive PIO controls,” said David Cuillier, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee.
“Government gatekeepers should not be sitting in on interviews, blocking access to sources, or requiring questions be submitted in writing. It’s time for federal agencies in particular to change their ways, because in the end the public loses.”

In July, SPJ and 37 other journalism and open government groups sent a letter to President Barack Obama’s administration urging it to stop excessive controls by federal public information officers. Additional retroactive signatories were added to letter bringing the total to 48. After a second letter was sent requesting a response, a non-response response letter was received from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

“When reporters are required to go through public information offices to talk to anyone, the source people know they are under surveillance by the official structure and that changes everything,” said Kathryn Foxhall, member of SPJ’s FOI committee. “Likely enough, there is someone in the agency who could blow the story out of the water if the PIOs weren’t tracking who is talking to which reporter.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.

The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists fights misinformation, protects scientists from harassment and political interference in their work, defends our nation’s science-based public health and environmental laws, and ensures that people have equal access to the independent scientific information they need to make informed decisions about their health, safety, and environment.


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