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.”

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