Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CDC Refuses Reporter Permission to Speak to Experts

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention denied me permission to speak to any expert on male circumcision over a five-week period in October and November during which I made more than 20 requests.
I’m a freelance reporter and my audience was tens of thousands of physicians.
The CDC website indicates the agency has been working on the circumcision recommendations for well over two years.
As many journalists know, a number of federal agencies force reporters to contact the agencies’ public information offices before speaking to agency staff.
And they often use that as a barrier to stop or limit news gathering.

One question for reporters is whether our tenacity is overcoming these restrictions, as we may like to think, or whether the agencies actually speak when and if they wish.

Circumcision recommendations are doubtlessly a difficult issue. Among other things, impressive studies from Africa have indicated the intervention is effective in reducing HIV transmission. On the other hand, there is significant opposition to the procedure in this country.

And it is always possible, in issues of potential controversy, for the political layers of government to be concerned about what is said.

Nevertheless, the questions are why an agency in the United States government would prohibit a reporter from speaking to an expert? Why can’t the public know how the discussion on this topic is being carried out and what the major issues are in a process that has continued for some time? Do our audiences deserve information from an interview with one of the several key experts? Or should the public be relegated to public information staff, leaving question of how the information is constrained as it goes through the PIO? Perhaps most importantly, why are people prohibited from speaking to each other in any circumstance and why is the press restricted to being tracked, and often stopped, by the agencies’ public relations staff?
In my long quest for an interview, I sent initial emails directly to the circumcision experts and, at least in one case, the email was forwarded to a public information officer.  
In response to my repeated requests, at various points a PIO gave me some basic information, said I could quote the information he had given me, said he would answer my questions, said the CDC scientists were too busy, said it was premature to do an interview about the guidelines, said he was providing all the information the agency has at this point, and said he would put me on the list for receiving the recommendations.
Meanwhile, I had indicated I was not seeking information about what the final recommendations would be.
Ultimately, another communications officer called and offered me an embargoed interview to be done shortly before the recommendations are to come out, at whatever point that is. I said that would be good, but I still wanted an interview with an expert now. She said the experts can’t talk about this.
After numerous contacts, I emailed Kevin Fenton, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, with questions including:
---Are the subject matter experts prohibited from speaking to the press on this topic?

---Why can't my audience get an update on the status of the recommendations and the process from a subject matter expert?

---I've been told it's premature to talk about the issue. How can anything that is the public's business ever be premature?

---Is every aspect of CDC's work premature if people in the agency decide it is?
---Doesn't the decision of what the public should hear about, and when, properly belong to the public, including the press?

I did not receive answers from Dr. Fenton.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

CJR Coverage and the Webinar of Press Club Meeting on PR Office Censorship, etc.

The Columbia Journalism Review had posted an article with further discussion of the October 3 meeting on press officer interference and other issues (see my coverage, below), as well as some answers from public affairs officials.

It also links to the video of the meeting.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reporters Cite Fear of Retaliation, Agencies' Message Manipulation, Poor Responsiveness

Reporters talked openly at a session this week at the National Press Club about federal agencies’ manipulation of the message and their simple lack of responsiveness to reporters, as well as journalists’ fear of retaliation from agencies.
Current rules at many agencies force reporters to get permission from agency public information officers before speaking to any staff person.  
In the midst of the panel discussion, an empty chair came in for harassment from reporters using it as a symbol of the absence of any administration official at that gathering which was focused on openness in the Obama administration.
Curtis Brainard, the session organizer and Columbia Journalism Review science editor, said he emailed and called administration officials dozens of times over six weeks asking that agencies have someone at the session. He contacted the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, he said, and made a last ditch plea to the White House. He received only declines.
All those entities are within blocks of the Press Club. HHS, at the behest of OSTP, had very recently put in place a media policy institutionalizing the long-standing prohibitions against reporters and staff members speaking to each other without the PIO tracking.
The session, which featured six reporters and journalism advocates as panelists, was a spinoff of the CJR’s recent piece on transparency in this administration. Brainard said the CJR had heard complaints from every corner of the science writing realm about lack of government openness.
Joe Davis, an editor with the Society of Environmental Journalists, said the absence, “Says a lot about what is going on today and suggests that the people who are unhappy with the current administration’s policies aren’t just imagining things,” adding he doesn’t believe the problem is either is a Republican or Democrat issue.
Despite the unused seat for an administration panelist, there were several public information officers from federal agencies in the audience of about 50 people.
Slow Response, No Response
Much of the session focused on agencies’ slow response or nonresponse to reporters’ requests for interviews or information. Felice Freyer, a medical writer at the Providence Journal and chair of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know committee, said that for a reporter from outside the Washington Beltway calling  press offices is often like “dropping a stone into a deep, deep well. Nothing happens. You don’t even hear it land.”
She noted that often reporters say agencies answer a week later or never. Many times, she said, reporters ask for an interview, but all they get is a statement from the press office.
Freyer did comment that AHCJ has had talks with HHS Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Richard Sorian on the issue and feedback from a few reporters has indicated some faster contacts.
Nancy Shute, a freelance writer and president of the National Association of Science Writers, said it seems with every new administration NASW goes back over this issue: “And I think that a lot of us may have thought that when the Obama Administration came in, with this big push for transparency….that this would make it easier for all of us to do our jobs. And I think we quickly realized how na├»ve we were.”
HHS scientists tell reporters who contact them that they have to get clearance through HHS, she said. And then days and weeks go by.
“I’m not talking about controversy. I’m not talking about politically fraught issues. I’m talking about good, solid science that was financed with our taxpayers’ dollars and that we journalists are just unable to cover.”
NASW wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this summer, Shute noted, saying the mandate that reporters get preclearance to speak to staff members was hampering their “ability to fully and properly cover the activities of HHS.”
The association has heard nothing back from the agency, she said.
Freyer of AHCJ said some reporters from outside Washington have told her, “Oh, I don’t even bother to call Washington, because I don’t have the time. I have a deadline. I can’t wait three weeks for them to get back to me.”
She encourages them to never give up, to call, email and call again and to track what went on with the interaction.
Political Control?
Davis of SEJ noted that EPA apparently has about 20 press officers and it should be able to get back to a reporter within 20 minutes.
When an answer takes a long time, he said, “either it’s being ignored because everyone is out to lunch; I don’t altogether believe that. Or it’s going up the chain politically and people are checking off to see if this is sensitive and what should we say or not say.”
Shute said when a reporter calls an institute about a paper a scientist has published, “Instead of the press office there being able to arrange an interview quickly, the review goes downtown to the main HHS office and it goes into this black hole for something that should never require that level of review.”
The multilevel review impedes the reporting, she said, but, “It also raises the real question of, you know, why is the political office involved? What kind of political decisions are being made over the fact that I did or did not get that interview?”
Schute said she had an interview on vaccines with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official. But when the interview was taped the official had been so “media managed by whomever that what the person said was unusable on the air.”
Speaking of some agencies’ practices of having a PIO listen in on an interview, Davis said, “Sometimes the minder is optional and sometimes the minder is mandatory. Sometimes the minder is there to help the scientist and sometimes they are there to help the agency. And even, once in a while, to help the reporter.”
“So the big worry, to put it bluntly, is intimidation. That having a minder in the room and monitoring every word keeps the interviewee silent and puts fear into the interviewee that retaliation will occur if the wrong thing is said,” he noted.
Davis also said, “I heard examples second hand in the last month or two of EPA scientists being told by the minders, ‘Oh, well, you can’t answer that question.’ And that is not new, but it’s not better either.”
Fear of Retaliation against Reporters
Retaliation against reporters is also on the minds of some journalists. Moderator Seth Borenstein, Associated Press national science reporter said, indeed, one reporter who had asked to be on the panel declined, “for fear of, for lack of better words, annoying too much the people this person has to rely on. And there is that balance. You don’t want to close all doors by complaining too much.”
Davis added, “I think agencies use the fear of retribution as a way of manipulating especially the smaller potato reporters, the ones outside the Beltway, the smaller publications.”
“But what I have found is that the big-time reporters get preferred advance briefings anyway, because they are the ones that reach the biggest audience. And when they break these rules about going behind the press offices’ back, they are not punished. They are rewarded with more advanced briefings,” he said.
Is It Getting Worse?
Borenstein said getting direct access to federal employees has been an issue for several administrations. However, at NASA, he asserted, “They are still pretty good, but one or two things are happening now that weren’t happening before, in terms of direct access the people.”
He said that now when he calls, suddenly staff members can’t talk without going through the public affairs office.
Freyer said, “I think that you would be hard pressed to find a reporter who hasn’t had difficulty getting through to an expert, but it isn’t something that has suddenly happened. It has been going on for a long time.”
Noting that news stories had said the Obama presidential campaign had been tightly message controlled, she said she guessed that has carried over to the administration: “The media officials want to know who is saying what to the media.”
Her concern, Freyer said, is “that it may be applied just too broadly to things that aren’t political or controversial.”
In the 1990s, she noted, she was doing a story on a breast cancer patient who wanted a bone marrow transplant and her insurance company would not pay for it. The National Cancer Institute quickly arranged an interview with a breast cancer researcher who said the transplant would not help. It greatly enhanced the story’s perspective, she said, but that kind of interview has gotten increasingly difficult.
Shute said, “I do think we see this really disturbing trend towards a much greater desire for top down control of interactions with all aspects of an organization with the media.”
“It used to be that it was just the political Schedule C policy types that had to worry about that. But I think what we are seeing now in some agencies is a systematic effort to push down and really control access to federal workers who are dealing with just every day, daily science.”
Brainard of CJR said another complaint is that officials have touted the administration’s release of data as an indication of openness, but, “Data does not speak for itself. It just never speaks for itself. You want to talk to the people who have collected the data, who are responsible for analyzing the data and implementing it in some way.”
The reporters also noted that journalists are able to walk the halls of Congress and talk to members of Congress and others there, something that is not allowed in the agencies.
How Long Has This Been Going On?
Brainard said a number of reporters feel the system of forcing reporters to go through minders may have started in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, but, “One administration lays the foundation for turning the screws for the next one. It just becomes easier and easier through successive administrations.”
Davis said, “It has not been that way forever, but it’s been that way longer than we admit.”
Comparing the U.S. to Other Countries
Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of the international group Reporters without Borders, said she would tell her audience about this U.S. concern. She noted that her organization compiles a yearly ranking of 178 nations in terms of their press freedom. The U.S. ranks 20th.
 “That is not first, but that is good,” she commented.
A number of European nations and Japan rank above the U.S. on that list.
However, she did say that one of the main concerns her group has with the United States is definitely the lack of access to information.
The panelists were asked to rank the current administration and the agencies they deal. The scale imagined was one where the former Soviet Union ranked one and Denmark -- which Reporters Without Borders ranks high -- ranked 10. Brainard said 5.5. Davis of SEJ gave it a 6 or 7. And Shute ranked it as a 4, “based on the fact that we are, in fact, the United States of America….We can do a lot better.”
What Should PIOs Do?
Asked what PIOs can do in the future, Fryer said that, for one thing, PIOs should not answer a reporter with an email asking for the reporters’ questions.  That includes, she said, asking the reporters to send their questions and then sending one sentence answers.
Shute agreed, saying, “You can’t ask a question of the person if it’s only an email and that is not a real conversation. And it’s pernicious. It’s not real speech. It’s not a real conversation.  And I think that it is always poor quality information.”
Freyer also said PIOs should not be directing what the reporter is doing or assuming things about  the reporting.  She said she has had intrusive questions, such as, “So what is your slant?”
Brainard of CJR said that given the wild world of new media today it helps if agencies “have a sort of triage system in place, so your press officers can quickly filter requests coming in from various types of media outlets. This is something that is really frustrating a lot of the public affairs officers that I talked to.”
He said PIOs often can’t make heads or tails of who is calling because there are so many blogs and new media sites popping up on an almost weekly basis.
“I don’t mean that there should be a policy in place that somehow excludes bloggers or new media entrepreneurs,” he said.
 In fact the policy, he stressed, “has to figure out a good way to include them, while at the same time, when necessary, giving some priority to larger outlets. Clearly the government wants to work with those outlets that are going to reach” the largest number of people.
“And that is totally reasonable.”
Background When It Should Not Be Background
One member of the webcast audience asked if perhaps reporters make things worse by accepting briefings from officials, “on background” or from unnamed flacks.
Borenstein asked about cases of “PA officials whose job it is to speak for a government agency, but think that they cannot give their names. What do we do with that?” Panel members indicated the answer varies according to the situation.
In answer to the question about whether reporters just whine too much, Davis said, “You say ‘whine’ like it’s a bad thing….It is our job to be aggressive and complain a lot for the people who aren’t complaining.”
Comment from KF:  The session did not directly address some free speech questions, including, why should any United States government entity prohibit journalists from speaking to staff members without reporting to the authorities? Why can’t reporters hear both the agency’s coordinated message as well the uncoordinated message from any staff member and decide what to follow up on? Isn’t it about two people talking about the public’s business? Why can’t reporters speak to staff in the same unhindered way other people do, including special interests?
What does it do to the reporting when reporters can never speak to staff unless the agency is tracking who speaks to whom? Given the political oversight and message manipulation that we do see, is there any doubt that there is a much we don’t see, hidden by PIOs surveillance? What is journalists’ responsibility to our audiences in going along with this system?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Washington Meeting Will Focus in Part on PR Office Censorship

An October 3 session at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., will focus in part on the PR Office Censorship issue.

The meeting is an offshoot of the recent Columbia Journalism Review investigation into the state of the Obama Administration’s promise to create an open government (see below).

The moderator will be Seth Borenstein, national science reporter for the Associated Press. And speakers will include Curtis Brainard, the author of the CJR investigative piece. Others on the panel are Joseph Davis, Society of Environmental Journalists; Felice Freyer, Association of Health Care Journalists; Darren Samuelsohn, Politico’s senior energy and environment reporter; and Clothilde Le Coz, Reporters Without Borders.

Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy have been invited.

A reception will follow.

Monday, September 26, 2011

HHS Puts It in Writing: Staff Members and Reporters Are Forbidden to Speak without Reporting to the Authorities

The Department of Health and Human Services last week released a media policy which makes it official that staff members and reporters are forbidden to speak to each other without reporting to public information officers and supervisors.
Although over the last 10-20 years HHS and many of its agencies have prohibited staff members not to speak to reporters without PIO oversight, this is apparently the first time in history the agency has put it in writing.
The policy says, “In order to make certain we provide the media the best possible service and information in a timely fashion, it is important that the relevant agency public affairs office be notified of all media calls/contacts that employees receive about their HHS work.”

It further says, “When approached by a reporter, HHS employees should work with their immediate supervisor and coordinate with the appropriate public affairs office/personnel in their agency.”

Seeming to endorse agencies’ current practices of sometimes dictating who reporters may or may not talk to, the document states, “In response to media interview requests, an agency public affairs office should identify the most knowledgeable spokesperson(s) who can provide the requested information.”

The policy does state, “In general, reporters, including bloggers, should have access to HHS employees they seek to interview.” One issue with that statement is that “in general” could allow agencies to divert reporters’ requests very often, since no one can track how frequently that occurs.

On another issue the policy says, “Media interviews should be on-the-record and attributable to the person speaking to the media representative, unless an alternate attribution arrangement is mutually agreed upon in advance.”  The Department is thus forbidding its thousands of employees to ever go “off-the-record” when talking to reporters, something which frequently allows journalists to get legitimate, verifiable information that will not come out through official channels.

HHS says, “Agency public affairs officers should facilitate interviews and work to meet reporters’ deadlines.” Although the word “facilitate” is not defined, in the past PIOs have listened in on conversations and sometimes dictated what may or may not be discussed.

The document also says that at meetings where HHS staff members make presentations, “Interviews or media questions that are beyond the scope of the study or specific work should be referred to their agency public affairs office for appropriate follow up.” Particularly in light of the restrictions in recent years, reporters sometimes talk to staff members at meetings to get away from the PIO “guards” and get some balance to the official view. Now that is prohibited.

The Association of Health Care Journalists, which has had many discussions with HHS about the restrictions, notes, “The guidelines do not state whether a media representative must or should listen in on interviews with HHS employees. They also do not address whether reporters from large and small media outlets should be treated equally.”

AHCJ has begun quarterly conversions with HHS public affairs officers on the issues. The association’s article says, “Asked whether reporters would ever be allowed to contact and interview federal employees on their own, Sorian said that HHS has no plans to change the policy requiring interview requests to be cleared by a public affairs office.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

CJR Looks at Agencies' Press Restrictions

Curtis Brainard, writing in the Columbia Review of Journalism, has done a great article on information control in federal agencies, looking at PR Office Censorship among other things.
It will hopefully open up discussion on why we have developed these restrictions on the press.
A couple of things I would expand on.
Brainard recounts, for example, how the EPA press secretary scolded reporters for questioning transparency policies and threatened to break off discussions with the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Public information officers pull these stunts because they can. The policies of forcing reporters to get PIOs’ permission to speak to anyone makes us dependent on PIOs.
It’s the inevitably corrosive power of censorship. Under normal conditions reporters would ignore PIOs posturing and call a good source person in the agency to find out what was happening. Then the agency could confirm or not, as it wished.
The CRJ article also tells how journalist Felice Freyer tried repeatedly to get FDA to respond to her breaking story on doctors’ use of IUDs that were not approved by the agency. FDA’s only answer was that the agency was looking into it. But four days later FDA posted an update on its website referring to the incident, warning consumers, and making it plain that the agency could have discussed the issue with the reporter if it wished.
I stress that far from being one incident, this is typical of the culture of FDA’s interactions with reporters. The PIOs just say no to many reporters’ requests to speak with staff members, possibly the majority of the requests.
For an article going to over 100,000 pharmacists, I asked to talk to a staff member who had spoken at a meeting about counterfeit drugs. The PIO said the staff member didn’t have anything else to say. After years of work on the subject.
Another time I asked to talk to an FDA expert about pharmaceuticals for children for tens of thousands of pediatricians. After numerous days of emails, an officer told me FDA didn’t need to talk to me because I had already talked to someone at another agency.
More recently I asked FDA if there would be a comment period for the upcoming biosimilars policy. The PIO gave me the URL for a 12-page Federal Register document. If I could have found something in the document that seemed to apply, I would have still needed confirmation from people working on the biosimilars issue.
The question is whether an agency which does not talk to the press unless it wishes to has any accountability to the public.

Monday, September 5, 2011

When You Don't Go Through The Censors

Media commentator Jim Romenesko covers the controversy surrounding the University of Kentucky athletic department’s action taken because a student journalist did not go through the media relations department. The department apparently took the student’s media pass away.  Associated Press Managing Editors and Associated Press Sports Editors both wrote letters to call it censorship.

Poor student journalists. Being a few years out of tenth grade civics, they may be forgiven for thinking that free speech and free press don’t mean having to ask for authorities for permission to speak.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reporters Will Report As Suggested. Or Else.

Earlier this year a federal public information officer told a room full of journalists that a reporter had published something the PIO had said which he had thought was “off the record.” So, the PIO said, adamantly, he decided he would no longer respond to the reporter’s contacts. He also told his staff not to respond.

The PIO, inadvertently, recognized the elephant in the room with the prohibitions against reporters and staff speaking to each other without going through the public information office. Those restrictions then become a choke point that is a powerful tool for controlling reporting and can be used however the agency wishes. The public and press need never know what manipulation is happening and why.
That's something reporters admit to each other sometimes. Last year I helped collect examples of PIOs controlling, delaying or manipulating conversations. The majority of reporters who gave examples, asked (pleaded in some cases) for anonymity. That’s because if they want to do any future reporting on that entity (agency, hospital, etc.) they must ask the same office for permission to talk to anyone.

Is it even credible the agency will never use that control to protect itself from negative reporting? Or that the control will never be used for political manipulation?

(Note: For now I’m setting a policy of not identifying public information officers in this blog, if it doesn’t seem necessary. That is because the responsibility for the censorship of prohibiting all reporting unless it’s under the PIO surveillance rests squarely with agencies’ leadership. The PIOs are mandated to do it.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Press and Government Entangled in the U.S. Also

The News Corp scandal illustrates how massively damaging behind-the-scenes entanglements of the press and government are.
Investigations are implying that News Corp had tentacles of power providing influence in law enforcement and the highest reaches of government.
In the U.S., with our agencies’ PR office censorship, we have entanglements of press and government with one thing in common with the News Corp situation:  both parties in that alliance tell the public little about what happens in that nexus between reporting and political power.
But with our situation the power flows in the opposite direction.
Government agencies do not allow reporters to do news gathering except when the agencies have surveillance on us and on the staff people who talk to us. Often they find a way to stop us from doing newsgathering at all.
Reporters can do little without the blessing of the PR office gatekeepers, who inevitably are watching the backs of management and the political administration, if they want to keep their jobs.
And reporters are beholden to the PR gatekeepers. We have to stay in their good graces if we want information about what government is doing --however sterilized that information might be by the PR process-- in order to keep our jobs.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Journalists call for ending censorship in the federal government

Over the last 10-20 years, agencies in the federal government have begun forbidding any employee to speak to any reporter unless all contacts are under the surveillance of the agency's press office.

The restrictions are severe censorship, akin to China's policies of putting "minders" on reporters.

Last fall, the Society of Professional Journalists called for an end to the practice.

The resolution is below;

Demanding an end to censorship caused by ‘Mandated Clearance’

Whereas, it has become increasing common for public agencies at all levels of government to prohibit their employees from communicating with journalists unless agency public relations officials are notified and/or those officials grant clearance or permission for employees to speak, and

Whereas, surveillance of government employees who communicate to journalists inevitably chills and limits what many employees are willing to tell journalists, even when critical information that should be public is at stake, and

Whereas, these prohibitions are a form of government censorship through: restriction of the availability of interviews; requiring government monitoring of interviews; limiting what may be asked or said during interviews; imposing a lengthy clearance process through multiple layers of government; and enabling surveillance by government officials of what scientists and other sources say to journalists, and

Whereas, public agencies do not generally place such restrictions on communications with other persons, including lobbyists and other representatives of special interests, and

Whereas, such limits on journalists impede vigorous, frequent communication with agencies and impede learning about their culture and internal workings, and

Whereas, this hinders the practice of quality journalism and these restrictions hide and foster malfeasance and incompetence in the agencies, and

Whereas, President Barack Obama has declared, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government,”

Therefore, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists, in convention assembled in Las Vegas, Nev., for its 101st celebration of journalism that SPJ urges President Obama to declare that all such restrictions in the federal executive branch are to be ended and to establish a mechanism by which any continuing restrictions can be reported to the highest level of his administration and subsequently eliminated; and

Be it further resolved that SPJ calls on President Obama to create a model for agencies on all levels of government by declaring that, except in cases where information is legally secret or confidential, federal staff members have the right and the responsibility to discuss the workings of the public’s business with journalists, honestly and openly, without delay, restrictions, surveillance or mandated notification of third parties, before or after the communication, and

Be it further resolved that when journalists independently decide to contact public relations offices, agencies have the responsibility: to the public to respond promptly; to never forbid that conversations take place or monitor conversations; to never place constraints on who the reporter will speak to or what may be said; and to never clear conversations with third parties in the agency, unless there are specific legal reasons for doing so, and

Be it further resolved that state and local governmental agencies to lift similar restrictions, and

Be it further resolved that news media everywhere should, whenever possible, reveal in their reporting when these types of restrictions are placed on their newsgathering and that they expose practices that restrict the free flow of information and threaten the public welfare.

[October 2010]