Government obstructing access to science data, panel says

Kirsten Berg | Newsgathering | Feature | October 4, 2011

With anecdotes of bureaucratically tangled interview requests, scripted and chaperoned sources, stalled federal Freedom of Information Act responses and politicized press offices, a panel of health and science journalists speaking at the National Press Club Monday said that many of the government agencies they rely on have failed to live up to the Obama administration's sweeping transparency promises.

The health, environment and energy reporters laid much of the blame for the lack of progress on a “disturbing” trend toward top-down, politically-motivated control of what certain agencies make accessible to the media that has continued since President Obama took office.

Even the release of relatively apolitical information, the panelists said, has become subject to approval up a high chain of political command. Some agencies can take days, if they take any action at all, to respond to basic media inquiries and interview requests--far too late for reporters on tight deadlines, according to the speakers.

“What we see happening over and over again with [the Department of Health and Human Services] is that you might go through, say, the National Institutes of Health and contact a scientist with a paper out and expect to get it cleared through the press office at the Institute,” said Nancy Shute, the president of the National Association of Science Writers and a contributor to NPR and Scientific American. “But, instead, the press office there knocks it up to HHS and Katherine Sebelius and it gets sucked into this black hole for something that should never have required this level of review.”

“This multi-level review impedes the reporting process, and it also raises real questions about why is the political office involved and what kind of political decisions were going on when I did or did not get those interviews,” she said.

The panelists also named the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Intergovernmnetal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Department of Energy and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as common offenders.

Curtis Brainard, a Columbia Journalism Review science reporter who helped organize the event, said that despite repeated attempts over the period of a month and a half to contact officials from the EPA, HHS, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, members of each of those agencies declined invitations to sit on the panel. He also said he contacted the White House with the same invitation this week, but did not receive a response.

The speakers jokingly speculated that the empty chair on their panel, reserved for such an official, might be a metaphor for the administration’s performance in their transparency initiatives.

And the speakers—who represented media organizations such as the Society of Environmental Journalists, Association of Health Care Journalists, National Association of Science Writers and Reporters without Borders—were not alone in their assessment.

Part of the impetus for the panel discussion was a critical report in the Columbia Journalism Review based on survey responses from nearly four hundred science reporters who were asked to rate this administration’s transparency performance.

Despite the fact that the president singled out science as an area that needed to be more open, most of the journalists who responded said they saw little improvement in the categories the survey asked them to rate: interview permissions, interview minders (public affairs officials who essentially chaperone and monitor interviews with sources) and processing of FOIA requests.

“In most categories, Obama was just a hair’s breadth above the Bush administration. And most of the responses were either that they were dissatisfied or deeply dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s performance,” said Brainard, who authored the Columbia Journalism Review article.

The respondents did say, however, that in the category of online databases the administration showed marked improvement, in part because of efforts such as data.gov.

But a few panelists were quick to note that even on that front, the Obama administration has faltered. Just last month, the Health Resources and Services Administration pulled the plug on their National Practitioner Databank, a public online database that lists anonymous physician malpractice and disciplinary records.

The HRSA took down the resource after a doctor, who was named in a Kansas City Star article about physicians with histories of malpractice that had not been disciplined by state medical boards, complained that the reporters were able to breach the confidentiality of the database.

But Joseph Davis, who directs the Society of Environmental Journalists Watchdog Project, said that he saw the incident as just one example of how a "sincere," but "naïve" Obama administration came up against entrenched interests at the agencies and in the defense, corporate and special interest communities.

“This is an example of how government ends up working to protect secrecy for reasons other than its own,” Davis said. “They do it defensively, whether it is confidential business information, or privacy, or libel, there are lots of high-priced lawyers who are working hard to bend the Obama administration in another direction, even if it wants to be open. And I think this is what we are seeing in some of these failures."

Felice Freyer, a health reporter for the Providence Journal and head of the Association of Health Care Journalist’s Right to Know Committee, said that the best option for reporters in this situation is to tell readers when the failure to get a response from the government meant that a story was not as complete as it could have been.

“[We should] be very explicit with what our difficulties were. Not just ‘so-and-so had no comment’ but ‘despite repeated inquiries over the period of weeks the FDA declined to answer questions.’ Include that the interview was attended or monitored, if it is relevant to the story," she said. "We need to demonstrate to the public how this affects their information about the story."

Brainard said that despite the negative ratings in his Columbia Journalism Review article and the complaints from panelists, journalists know that the government will not just feed them information, “It is our job to go and dig it up.”