Reporters Are Having Trouble Reaching Government Researchers – and That’s a Problem

Photo credit: Lukas Benc. Image retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Photo credit: Lukas Benc. Image retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

A new report is highlighting a problem that has been apparent to reporters – particularly science and federal policy reporters – for years: the federal government generally makes it tough for reporters to talk to government scientists about work that is important to the general public.

Why This Matters

Here’s why this is a big deal: science is absolutely essential to understanding many of the most pressing issues that our society faces today. For example, global climate change is affecting – and will continue to affect – everything from our food supply to international security (and this is not a new idea). And you can’t understand climate change or its impacts (much less predict what they may be) without talking to the scientists, medical researchers and engineers who study these phenomena. The same holds true for everything from energy to infrastructure to public health.

And guess who’s doing a lot of the research on these policy-relevant scientific questions? Government scientists. It makes sense that they would be studying these questions. The research they do allows government officials – the policy folks – to make informed decisions about how to best serve the public.

But in nations that depend on an informed public to elect government officials (the folks who steer policy), the knowledge of government scientists has to be shared. If that information isn’t widely available, then how can we have an informed public?

This is where reporters come in. Reporters – or, at least, good reporters – do not simply regurgitate information. They ask questions. If they want to understand the scientific underpinnings of government policy, they talk to multiple experts in multiple fields. They sort through countless pages of government documents that are often written in stupefyingly dull language. And they will want to talk to some of the scientists who did the work in the first place.

In short, good reporters want to understand exactly what they’re reporting on. They want to sift through all of the dross so that they can explain things clearly to the public. They do all of this intellectual grunt work because most people don’t have the time or skills. They do all of this because it’s a reporter’s job.

So, if an institution makes it difficult for reporters to talk scientists – the relevant experts on the work that is guiding government policy – then that institution is making it difficult for reporters to do their jobs. And, ultimately, the institution is making it harder for the public to keep informed about what its government is doing.

And in any form of representative government, that’s a problem.

The Report

On August 4, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a report called “Mediated Access: Transparency Barriers for Journalists’ Access to Scientists and Scientific Information at Government Agencies.” The report was developed in partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists and finds that journalists “are not getting the information they need to fully and accurately inform the public.”

The report bases this on a survey of 254 science, health and environmental journalists. Among other things, the report states, “The majority of survey respondents (56.8 percent) reported that they believe the public is not getting all of the information it needs because of barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

The report lays out four obstacles that often make it difficult for reporters to talk to government researchers:

  • Requiring preapproval for interviews (74.2 percent of journalists reported dealing with this);
  • Public information officers (PIOs) closely monitor interviews (57.8 percent);
  • PIOs simply refused to give journalists access to scientists (46.1 percent); and
  • Reporters had to make multiple requests to get information or interviews (67.5 percent) or were routed to government employees other than the one they wanted to talk to (52.4 percent).

All of these are bad, and three of them are so clearly problematic that they speak for themselves. But I’ll single out the one on “closely monitoring interviews,” because I think there’s some ambiguity there.

As the UCS report notes, having PIOs present in interviews can be helpful. For example, “journalists commented that PIOs sometimes took note of studies and other sources interviewees had mentioned, tracked them down, and provided them to the journalist after the interview. Doing so saved scientists time and contributed to journalists’ understanding of the issues.” And, while I rarely insert myself into scientist interviews in my capacity as a university PIO, there have been occasions when researchers have specifically requested that I be there (more on that here).

So, why would it be bad for PIOs to “closely monitor” an interview? Because, as the UCS report notes, reporters feel (and with good reason) that “PIOs [can] also slow down—or otherwise obstruct—the news-gathering process when they try to exercise control over what journalists get to ask and how scientists get to respond. In open-ended survey responses, journalists pointed out different ways they felt PIOs sometimes inhibited conversations. ‘They routinely monitor reporter questions,’ said one respondent, ‘and often times shut down all information and access, other than a short statement.’”

And the presence of a PIO can often put a damper on an interview, even if the PIO isn’t actively derailing the conversation. I covered environmental policy issues during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and spoke to a lot of government researchers over the years. When PIOs sat in on a conversation, researchers were almost always more reluctant to talk freely. Scientists who I knew to be garrulous or funny would become monosyllabic. It was frustrating.

Policy and Practice

One of the things I was particularly happy to see in the UCS report was a section highlighting the gap between policy and practice when it comes to providing reporters with access to government researchers.

In March, UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy issued a report called “Grading Government Transparency,” which offered up a report card on the media and social media policies of federal agencies. And I was surprised by some of the things I saw there.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) got an A for its media policy, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got an A-. But the CDC is a famously (or infamously) frustrating agency for reporters to deal with. And according to the UCS report card, EPA had moved from a D on media policy in 2008 (the last year I covered it as a reporter) to an A- in 2015. But everything I’ve heard from environmental journalists has indicated that EPA has actually gotten significantly more obstructive in recent years.

To be clear, I’m not singling out the CDC and EPA because I think they are “worse” than other federal agencies (e.g., some of the PIOs I dealt with EPA at were very good), but because the discrepancy between their media policy grade and the observable reality is most stark. They’re both involved in incredibly important work, and blocking access to the scientists who do that work would seem to be doing a disservice to the public, the researchers involved, and to the overall public image of the agencies.

Also, it’s worth noting that both policy and practice are rarely developed solely (if at all) by communication staff, so it rarely makes sense to get frustrated with the PIOs themselves. [Note: UCS goes into some of the factors that make this issue complicated for PIOs on page 18 of the report.]

But it’s easy to see why reporters get frustrated.

Here’s an anecdote shared by a reporter I know (I won’t single out the relevant agency): “There have been instances when one of my colleagues has called a scientist manager they have a relationship with, and because of the nature of the question, the scientist feels an ‘official’ answer needs to come through the press office. The scientist, who has the authority to speak on the issue, prepares a response and sends it to the press office, but the press person never sends it on to the reporter. When the reporter asks the scientist what happened, the scientist genuinely has no clue how [or] why the press office never sent it on.”

And I wasn’t the only one to notice this disconnect between the media policy and media practice of agencies. UCS saw it too.

In its “Mediated Access” report, UCS highlights agencies where the media policy grade was inconsistent with what journalists reported as an agency’s actual practice – and also singled out the CDC and EPA. Other agencies, such as NASA, came off pretty well.

Now What?

The UCS report has a laundry list of recommendations, some of which are pretty obvious (e.g., “permit journalists to interview subject-matter experts who can answer their questions). But the recommendations aren’t just for agencies. There are also calls to action for reporters, scientists, and the White House (see pages 17-19 of the report – they’re too long to recap here).

My concern is whether anyone will pay attention to the recommendations. Many of the concerns raised in the report aren’t new (I know I was griping about them over beers in the 1990s). What will it take to effect change? I don’t know.

I think this is an extremely important issue. I think good journalism matters, and I think that having access to government scientists is valuable in terms of helping good journalism to thrive. Reporters have deadlines and limited time, and anything that unnecessarily hinders the reporting process makes it less likely that a story will be as good as it can be. As a former reporter, that drives me nuts. As a citizen in a country that relies on informed citizenry to elect our representative government, that scares the heck out of me.

But while I don’t know how to fix the problem, I do know that ignoring it won’t make it go away. We can do better. And we should.

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