Access – or lack of access – to health information is making news

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

key-in-lock-showing-forbidden-information-graphicstockSeveral stories about access to public information have caught my eye in the past week. Whether it involves public health data from Florida, evidence in a federal criminal case or embargoes and favored access at a federal agency, it’s clear that journalists are facing obstacles in ensuring the public’s access to information.

In Rhode Island, a judge ruled in favor of a journalist seeking evidence presented in the trial of a doctor now “serving four life sentences for his role in operating a pain management clinic like a ‘pill mill.'” The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had refused to release the records since journalist Phil Eil requested them after the trial ended in 2011.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell Jr. wrote, “Public scrutiny of the workings of government — including the judiciary — is vitally important to the proper functioning of our democracy.”

In Florida, The Miami Herald has sued Miami-Dade County over records of where mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus have been found.

A county official declined to release the records, “citing an exemption in the law for ‘information submitted in reports of diseases of public health significance to the Department of Health.’ Those reports, the law says, ‘shall be made public only when necessary to public health.’”

Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the paper’s executive editor, said, “Given the intense public interest in the spread of Zika, and the desire of South Floridians to have as much information as possible to make their own health decisions, we believe the locations of the traps should be released.”

It’s worth noting that AHCJ, with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the National Association of County and City Health Officials, developed guidelines on the release of information concerning deaths, epidemics or emerging diseases in 2010. The introduction to that guidance notes that, “Whether it is a natural disaster or an unfamiliar illness, people want to know what is happening, what to expect, and what actions they can take to protect themselves and their families.”

Many journalists on social media have been discussing Charles Seife’s Scientific American piece, “How the FDA Manipulates the Media,” in which he reveals the agency’s use of “close-hold embargoes” to control who reporters interview for articles.

Seife obtained documents, using the Freedom of Information Act, that he says paint a disturbing picture:

“For example, the FDA assures the public that it is committed to transparency, but the documents show that, privately, the agency denies many reporters access—including ones from major outlets such as Fox News—and even deceives them with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story. At the same time, the FDA cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats. And the agency has made it a practice to demand total control over whom reporters can and can’t talk to until after the news has broken, deaf to protests by journalistic associations and media ethicists and in violation of its own written policies.”

This isn’t the first time the FDA has run afoul of journalists. In February 2011, AHCJ sent a letter to the agency asking it to reconsider its policy “that prohibits reporters from sharing embargoed materials with sources before the embargo lifts for the purpose of obtaining outside comment and context.”

In June of 2011, the FDA responded with an embargo policy that is more in line with other agencies and clarified that “A journalist may share embargoed material provided by the FDA with non-journalists or third parties to obtain quotes or opinions prior to an embargo lift provided that the reporter secures agreement from the third-party to uphold the embargo.”

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