'Access Denied' ...

Science News and Government Transparency Under the Obama Administration

Reporters at a session hosted by the National Press Club vent their frustrations with what they generally see as the low level of ‘transparency’ afforded media under the Obama administration.  They point to one bright spot:  improved access to online databases.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — October 3 — Prompted by a Curtis Brainard article in the September/October issue of Columbia Journalism Review, the National Press Club hosted a panel discussion on science journalism — “Access Denied: Science News and Government Transparency.”

Under the Obama administration, several speakers agreed, science journalists are still hampered by unresponsive public information officers (PIO), by intrusive oversight of interviews, and by long delays in the processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They pointed to one bright spot under the Obama administration:  much improved access to online databases.

The panelists represented a cross-section of science beats:  Brainard (science editor for CJR, one of the co-sponsors for the event), Joseph Davis (Society for Environmental Journalists, another co-sponsor), Felice Freyer (Association of Health Care Journalists), Nancy Shute (National Association of Science Writers), Darren Samuelsohn (senior energy and environment reporter for Politico), and Clothilde Le Coz (Reporters Without Borders, another co-sponsor). Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein moderated the discussion for the 40 in attendance and for an online audience that filed questions via Twitter.

After introductions and opening remarks, Borenstein asked the panelists to rank the Obama administration on a global scale of transparency, with 1 defined by the former Soviet Union and 10 by the Scandinavian countries of today, to which Reporters Without Borders had given the highest rankings in its most recent Press Freedom Index. The responses ranged between 4 and 7, for an average of 5.5.

High Early Expectations Going Unmet

As Brainard had observed in his CJR article — on a survey completed by nearly 400 science, health, and environmental journalists — these responses likely reflect a mixture of disappointed expectations and actual frustrations. Most journalists gave the Obama administration marginally better scores (42 percent rated its accessibility as “Fair”) than they gave the last Bush administration (44 percent rated it “Poor” or “Very Poor”). But based on his promises, journalists had expected much more from Obama.

Every member of the panel had a personal tale of frustration. Felice Freyer, whose experience is included in Brainard’s article, recounted repeated efforts to get a response from the Food and Drug Administration for a medical story she was writing for a Rhode Island newspaper. Four days after she published her story, FDA posted some of the information she had requested — as a “consumer update.” Others described new difficulties they were experiencing in reaching and interviewing government scientists. And several provided updates on still-unmet FOIA requests, some filed as long as nine years ago.

But panelists also offered context. Le Coz noted that journalists in other countries face much more severe problems; apart from the Scandinavian countries, most of the U.S.’s European counterparts ranked lower on Reporter’s Without Borders’ scale. Davis called attention to entrenched interests the Obama administration is up against; agencies and offices with close ties to industry lobbyists can fiercely resist calls for transparency.  Brainard reminded the audience that “this is an adversarial relationship”; although they should still press for greater access, reporters should also try to see the problem from the government’s standpoint.

Steps Suggested for Government PIOs

This call for a shared perspective was partially answered during the Q&A portion of the program. A public information officer from the National Science Foundation, somewhat surprised by the suspicions aroused by “minders” sitting in on press interviews with scientists, asked the panelists to identify “best practices” for someone in his position. All stressed the need to respond quickly to requests; several followed up with secondary points:

  • Meet with reporters on your beat (perhaps once every six months).
  • Explain, quickly and honestly, why a specific information request from a reporter cannot be met.
  • Prepare a list of media contacts — with cell phone numbers — for your office or agency.
  • Recognize the importance of the give-and-take of conversation. Asking reporters for a list of questions, to which you or the scientist will respond by e-mail, short-circuits the reportorial process. (And don’t ask intrusive questions: “What’s your slant?”)
  • Consult with experienced PIOs. (USGS earned praise for how it handles these issues.)

But the consensus of the panel was that the trend-line points in the opposite direction: matters likely will get worse. The slight uptick in access since Bush II was negligible when measured against decades of decline, panelists said, without discussing why they think that is the case.

In a brief interview afterward, Borenstein suggested the problem is one of incremental power:  Rather than tear down the barriers erected by their predecessors, each new administration simply adds on new layers of management and control. Brainard, in a separate follow-up, pointed to the increasing difficulties of the job: PIOs are being asked to do more, and under increasingly divisive conditions. A look at what happens when one doesn’t control the message may well make the desire for control paramount, he suggested.

Symbolic of this larger problem was an empty chair on the far right end of the dais. Over the last several weeks, organizers said, they had repeatedly invited the Obama administration to send a spokesperson to present its side of this story. No one came and no explanation was offered.

*The fourth paragraph of this posting was edited on October 10, 2011.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimateconnections.org)
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