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Reporters urged to insist on response from government agencies Date: 09/16/10

By Felice J. Freyer

Over the summer I had an instructive, if depressing, experience with the Food and Drug Administration.

Ten percent of the obstetricians/gynecologists in Rhode Island, the state I cover, had admitted to inserting hundreds of intrauterine devices (IUDs) they had obtained illegally at discount prices from foreign sources. The FDA was involved in the investigation. I had several questions and wanted the FDA to articulate its position on the importation of devices for a story I was writing.

I wasn’t sure which press officer to approach, so I filled out the “Timely Response E-mail Form” on the FDA website. No one acknowledged receiving the form. After several hours, I called and spoke with a press officer. He suggested I e-mail my questions to him, which I did. Again, no response.

Two days later I called him back. He said he was waiting for a response from people above him and suggested I resubmit the questions a third time by e-mail, which I did. When several more days went by without a response, I e-mailed the press officer to ask if I could expect any answers and, if not, why the FDA did not want to comment.

His reply:  “At this point, all we can say is that the FDA is continuing to look into these cases.”

I published my story, stating that the FDA had declined to answer any questions. Four days later, the FDA posted a “consumer update” on its website referring to the Rhode Island controversy and warning consumers against unapproved IUDs. The advisory answered some, but not all, of the questions I had submitted.

I was astonished. It turned out the FDA’s position was not the “no comment” I received. The agency had quite a lot to say on the matter but had declined to say it in the newspaper serving those who were affected.

FDA headquarters in White Oak, Md. (Photo by thisisbossi via Flickr)
FDA headquarters in White Oak, Md. (Photo by thisisbossi via Flickr)

I wrote to the press officer I originally dealt with and asked him why this happened. He did not reply. I then wrote to FDA’s chief press officer, Beth Martino. After a week went by with no reply from Martino, I e-mailed Jenny Backus, the top press officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. I had met Backus a few weeks earlier, in my role as chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee. Along with AHCJ President Charlie Ornstein and committee member Kathryn Foxhall, we had discussed improving reporters’ access to federal officials.  Backus replied to my e-mail within minutes, saying she’d look into it. The next day, Martino sent me an e-mail.

Martino apologized for her office’s unresponsiveness and promised to do better next time. I appreciated that. But her only explanation for why the FDA would not answer my questions, even as it was preparing a public statement, was revealing.

“The messages that we distributed,” she wrote, “were not largely targeted to the media … .” She didn’t say why those messages could not also be shared with the media.

I don’t think the FDA had anything major to hide. It seemed like the agency just couldn’t be bothered with my questions, preferring to focus on a statement for release on its own time. But there are two problems with this:

  1. the “consumer update” left several questions unanswered; and

  2. it’s doubtful that many consumers saw the advisory, because you’d have to know to go looking for it.

Hundreds of women throughout Rhode Island were distressed and frightened by the IUD incident. They deserved better from the agency that was supposed to be protecting them.

The Obama Administration has done some admirable work posting user-friendly information on the Internet. But as long as the administration’s press officers ignore and deflect reporters’ questions, the government’s websites begin to function like a state-sponsored press, containing only the information the government wants to share, forever impervious to questioning.

I urge my fellow journalists to push back against this trend. I have heard from reporters – especially those who, like me, work for the regional media – who say they’ve given up on getting information from the federal government because it’s close to impossible, especially on deadline. But Obama has pledged transparency and, in her meeting with AHCJ, Backus promised responsiveness from HHS – including to inquiries from outside-the-Beltway media. Let’s hold them to those promises.

Here is my advice for journalists reporting on issues involving the federal government:

  • If you know who the subject matter expert is, attempt to reach the person directly. Even if he or she says you need clearance from the press office, having the name of someone willing to talk may speed the response.

  • If that fails, call the press office, even if you’re on deadline and haven’t had any luck in the past.

  • If someone promises to get back to you, ask when you can expect an answer. Call if you don’t hear back when expected.

  • Follow up every call with an e-mail.

  • If a press officer is unresponsive, contact his or her superior.

  • Keep calling and e-mailing right up until deadline (but remain unfailingly courteous).

  • If you don’t get an adequate response, make that clear to your readers, listeners and viewers.

  • Persist even after you publish or broadcast your piece. If you did not get a satisfactory response, go back to the agency and ask what can be done to make your next effort more successful.

  • Share your experience with AHCJ, including positive experiences.

Please send me a note (felice.freyer@cox.net)  if you interact with a federal press officer. The Right to Know Committee will continue to compile anecdotes as we press for better access to the people who are, after all, paid by taxpayers to work on the public’s behalf.


Felice J. Freyer, who serves on AHCJ’s Board of Directors and is chair of its Right to Know Committee, is a medical writer at The Providence (R.I.) Journal. She can be reached at felice.freyer@cox.net or 401-277-7397.