NOAA employees install a tide gauge near Castle Cape, Alaska. NOAA was rated as the most responsive scientific agency.

NOAA employees install a tide gauge near Castle Cape, Alaska. NOAA was rated as the most responsive scientific agency. Personnel of NOAA Ship RAINIER

Poll: Science Agencies 'Stonewalling' Reporters

NOAA shown most open to allowing scientists to give interviews.

The Obama administration, which has pledged both to embrace transparency and promote scientific integrity, continues to tightly control journalists’ access to federally employed scientists, a survey of reporters found.

Nearly 59 percent of respondents “feel that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of the barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices,” according to the survey released April 9 by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Almost three quarters (74.2 percent) of the reporters said that they are required to obtain public information officers’ approval before interviewing employees at least some of the time, and 52.2 percent said that when they ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, the PIO  routes their request to a different agency employee at least some of the time. In comments, reporters added that this different employee was “more likely to give the answer the agency wanted the reporter to get,” Carolyn Carlson, a member of the Freedom of Information Committee at the journalists society, told reporters at the National Press Club.

Most reporters did report having positive working relationships with public information officers, and said that science agencies responded well during crises, such as hurricanes, epidemics or oil spills. But “when reporters are required to go through public information offices to talk to anyone, the source people know they are under surveillance by the official structure and that changes everything,” said Kathryn Foxhall, another journalist on the Freedom of Information Committee. “Likely enough, there is someone in the agency who could blow the story out of the water if the PIOs weren’t tracking who is talking to which reporter.”

The agency that won the most plaudits for responsiveness to journalists was the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Michael Halpern, program manager of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Government scientists are a tremendous resource on everything from [prescription] drugs to bioterrorism, and they know how the policy process works,” he said.  

Last July, 48 open government groups joined with the society in a letter to the White House asking for an end to “excessive controls” on information and to policies requiring reporters to submit questions in advance of interviews with agency officials. In August, they received what they viewed as a “non-response response” from White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who cited as samples of greater transparency the administration’s increased access for journalists to President Obama’s private fundraising activities, more declassification of information and faster responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The new survey was sent online in January-February to 1,667 journalists out of a pool of 8,000 who expressed interest in science, the environment, health and medicine. It drew 254 responses. 

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