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.

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