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.