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About AHCJ: General News

Committee works to improve access to experts, officials Date: 06/29/10

By Felice J. Freyer
Chair, AHCJ Right-to-Know Committee

If a public relations representative listens in on an interview, should the reporter let readers know?

That question has recently stirred debate among AHCJ members and others after Peggy Peck, executive editor of MedPage Today, instructed reporters at the online medical news service to inform readers whenever a press officer has listened in on an interview. Peck reasoned that, if a press officer was present, then the interviewee may not have been speaking freely – and readers deserve to know.

Peck instituted this rule immediately after a conference call with AHCJ's Right-to-Know Committee, a 12-member group working to improve access to information for reporters and the public. Peck is a member of the committee. On the call we were talking about one of the committee's top goals – ending the obstructions to newsgathering imposed by federal public information officers.

Peck's decision was reported in the Covering Health blog that day and the item received more than 100 hits within an hour. In a subsequent debate on Twitter, some journalists questioned whether there was room to include such information in their stories and whether their editors would leave it in. Others countered that the disclosure could be a brief phrase and was similar to telling readers why a source was anonymous.  (Read this thread.)

Brian Reid, director of a New York public relations firm, wrote to me to point out that "not all 'monitoring' of interviews is done with the intention of squelching the free flow of information, and that a blanket disclosure will devalue any comments made in such a scenario." He said his firm monitors interviews to make sure reporters get follow-up information, to guard against misquotes and to "make sure that my clients are communicating well." 

I have also heard from public relations people who say that, far from feeling inhibited, interviewees often want the public relations official on the line because they are intimidated by the media.  Sometimes public information officers listen in merely to learn from the interview, to better understand the issue under discussion.

But Kathryn Foxhall, a Right-to-Know Committee member and the lead advocate on this issue, pointed out that the motives for the monitoring don't really matter, because the end result is still that people can't speak freely or confidentially.

As for Peck, she has no regrets about her new rule.  "I think the issue is pretty simple – when there is a third party present on the phone or face-to-face it alters the interview," she said in an e-mail. "I'm not going to go so far as to say it always has a chilling effect, but there is a potential for that.  ... Amid all the discussion this has generated, I've found myself somewhat chagrined that this didn't occur to me earlier."

As part of this effort, the Right-to-Know Committee has been talking directly with federal officials about improving reporters' access to federal experts. On April 12, AHCJ President Charles Ornstein, Foxhall and I joined representatives of the Society for Professional Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists on a conference call with Joshua Sharfstein, M.D., associate commissioner of the FDA, and Beth Martino, the FDA's top communications officer. We asked that the FDA return reporters' calls within two hours, provide a list of experts that reporters could contact directly and stop listening in on interviews. The FDA did not say whether it would grant those requests, but announced plans to track press phone calls and write a press policy.

On June 25, Ornstein, Foxhall and I met in Washington with Jenny Backus, the top press officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, and Luis Rosero, a deputy assistant secretary in the office of public affairs. Backus acknowledged that every press inquiry to any agency of HHS (such as the FDA or the CDC) has to be cleared by her office. She also said the practice of monitoring interviews will continue, to ensure accuracy – and because the administration needs to know what is being said. But she expressed a desire to work with the press, including regional, ethnic and specialty publications, to provide timely answers without "spin." She also plans to provide us with a list of the top press contacts for each division, for reporters to contact when they are have difficulty getting what they need from a lower-level press officer.

The Right-to-Know Committee has several other initiatives under way. We plan to work with state and local public health officials to develop guidelines on reporting deaths of interest to the public, such as whether to release the age, sex and hometown of swine-flu victims. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officers has agreed to host a meeting in September to draw up nonbinding guidelines. Three or four AHCJ members will participate.

We are also continuing in our efforts to persuade the Joint Commission to make its Web site more transparent and accessible, and to challenge medical groups that impose excessive restrictions on recording and photography at their meetings.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please contact Freyer at felice.freyer@cox.net.