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Reporter offers testimony to FDA committee about agency's communication policies Date: 03/11/08

At the first meeting of the new advisory committee to the FDA on Risk Communications on March 6, 2008, AHCJ member and freelance reporter Kathryn Foxhall testified about the FDA's communications policies. The FDA is just one of many agencies and organizations that use tracking and monitoring by their public relations offices to stifle communication between its employees and the press.

Foxhall's prepared testimony:

My name is Kathryn Foxhall. I'm a freelance reporter. I've covered the Washington health scene as a reporter/editor for specialized health publications for over 30 years. I write for physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and others. Among other positions I was editor of The Nation's Health, the newspaper of the American Public Health Association for 14 years.

The way it used to be

Not too long ago a host of reporters covered federal agencies in standard reporting fashion. We talked to people in the agencies. We got to know staff. We developed source people. We called and got 2-minute educations that vastly improved our stories. A very quick interview often turned an empty shell of an article into a solid piece.

Some specialized reporters regularly walked a beat in the halls of agencies, in the time-honored manner of local reporters. We often got story ideas faster than we could scribble them down. The agency experts were our graduate schools.

Nobody ever quantified those communications. Usually they were just a routine part of a staff member's day.

Then, about 12-14 years ago some agencies began instituting a control mechanism:

Staff members are strictly forbidden from speaking to any reporter, unless the reporter first makes application, for each conversation, with the public relations office, and is tracked by that office. FDA is one of the worst agencies in the use of this control.

What happens now

This permission-to-speak system is simply the most horrible thing I have seen happen in the governmental process. It is severe censorship and very effective censorship. Agencies track, monitor, control and chill our conversations with staff.

Burdensome

The permission-to-speak mandate has probably killed 90 percent of communication.

It goes like this. A reporter who wants talk to a staff person - whether it's for 5 minutes or 2 hours - must call the public relations office. An assistant tells the reporter someone will call back. The reporter waits. The public relations officer calls back, maybe in two hours, maybe a day, maybe not ever.

When the public relations officers get back, they want to know what the questions are, when your deadline is, etc. Then they often try to answer to questions themselves, without allowing you to talk to the source person. Sometimes they just say you can't talk to the person, because of reasons like the agency doesn't answer questions like that.

If the process goes forward, the public relations officer says he or she will get back to you, again, and then hangs up. What happens in the meantime, we don't know. Does someone else have to bless the conversation?

The public relations officer then gets back in two hours, three days, or never. There is no set time.

I have sat at my desk all afternoon while a physician expert sat at his desk, after he had already told me he would love to talk to me about technical medical provisions of a federal register notice. But our permission-to-speak never came.

If permission-to-speak comes, often the public relations officer mandates that he or she will listen in on the conversation. So the officer goes away, again, to set up a time when all three parties can be on the phone.

And, increasingly, the public relations officers -those people whose job it is to make the organization look good-listen in on every word.

But usually, reporters just don't call to begin with because they can't devote the absurd amount of effort to the application process, for a few words with a staff member.

What business or other endeavor could survive a mandate of a multi-day, permission-to-speak application for every 5-minute conversation? What would that do to anybody's work?

The Monitoring

The burden, by itself, is severe censorship. But that is not the worst of it.

The chill from the fact of the public relations officials tracking and/or listening in is nearly universal and it is devastating. The communication is nearly always different - much less fluid, less informative- than it is if we can ever get people away from the monitors.

Most Communication Is Benign

Ironically, the great majority of the communication that has now ceased was benign and useful from the agencies' own point of view. It was exactly the kind of information an agency wants to get to the public.

Reporters want to know: Does this rule apply to this population? What does this term mean in this Federal Register notice? Can you tell me what this is about, in English?

However, Viva the Adversarial Press

But there is also critical need for those conversations that some officials are not comfortable with.

In addition to "untracked" conversations, "off-the-record" conversations are often absolutely indispensable. If the permission-to-speak rules had been in effect and adhered to in the early 1970s Watergate could not have been reported.

Before the permission-to-speak system, one day I was talking with an agency staffer--an expert, the head of a program - for 30 minutes. I had gotten my obligatory quotes and I was about to hang up. Then, just on a chance, I said, "Dr. XYZ, is there something you could tell me if your name weren't attached to it?" At that point Dr. XYZ exploded with information. It was as if a klieg light had come on in a totally dark cave.

Everything he told me was "public information." But not in a hundred years would a reporter or member of Congress have understood without inside help.

Had I not gone off the record the story would have been sterilized to the point of deception. How often does my profession serve to lull the public into thinking the official story has been confirmed and there's no need to question?

Something happened a couple years ago that told me how much trouble we are in. An agency held a major media event to announce an initiative. But there was no initiative because there was nothing new, no new funding or new activity. This almost assuredly had to do with politics.

The media gave the "initiative" major play. No reporter understood the inside workings to question things and no reporter could call staff without being tracked. Of the numerous staff people who understood the situation, no one tipped off a reporter, because they are forbidden to talk to us off the record. And staff people and reporters don't know each other anymore.

How confident agencies seem to be that they can just put out a story and control the public information.

FDA News

Some reports on FDA recently have been about part of the agency not functioning well or about the agency not having the resources to work properly.

For most stories like that, I know a couple of things: usually, a number of staffers have understood the issue for years. And, some would have laid out a map of it for a reporter, if they could have talked, away from monitors. From there, the reporter could have gotten a balanced story by talking to other people.

But agencies are getting bolder about using this blockage. Recently an FDA public relations officer told me, "I decide if you can talk to him."

This committee's charge is to look at FDA's communication, particularly risk communication. But if the press can't freely talk to people in the agency, then the trust in the information, whether it's about risk or about the agency itself, must be very limited.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak.