About AHCJ: General News

Survey of health journalists finds roadblocks to information at federal agencies Date: 06/01/16

June 1, 2016

Contact: Felice J. Freyer

Columbia, MO – The first survey to focus on the newsgathering experiences of health care journalists has found that the federal government often blocks access to information, supporting assertions that the Obama administration has failed to keep its promise of transparency.

The Association of Health Care Journalists asked its members about access to information at all levels of government. Respondents were more likely to seek information from federal agencies than from state or local governments – and they were more likely to encounter roadblocks at the federal level.

Three-quarters said it is difficult to get the information they need from the federal government. Two-thirds had similar difficulties with state government.

Respondents told of delays, bureaucracy, scripted replies, and obstacles to interviews.

“This survey shines a light on the ways that government officials attempt to wall off their work from public view,” said Karl Stark, the association’s president and assistant managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Its findings will both strengthen and inform AHCJ’s longstanding advocacy for government openness.”

“Our survey confirms much of what we have been hearing anecdotally: too often, journalists – and by extension, the public – encounter delays and other barriers to information that government ought to readily provide,” said Irene M. Wielawski, chair of the association’s Right to Know Committee, which conducted the survey. “But the survey also yielded detail about our members’ experience that will be useful in AHCJ’s ongoing work with government media officials to improve communication.”

Obtaining information from federal agenciesWith 1,500 members, the Association of Health Care Journalists is the largest organization representing reporters, editors, and producers who cover health care and medicine for print, broadcast, and online outlets. The association has been calling on the federal government to improve access to information since President Obama first took office, and its Right to Know Committee has long advocated for better access.

The survey was sent to the association’s professional category members during February and March 2016 and just over 20 percent completed the survey.

Many respondents objected to the common practice of supplying written answers to questions, often as a substitute for an interview. They said statements rarely fully answer the question, leading to time-consuming back-and-forth. “Written responses to written interview questions are the worst possible waste of time for everyone involved,” one wrote.

Two-thirds reported that, when they provided written questions to federal agencies, they “sometimes” or “often” got written answers instead of a requested interview. A quarter said these written replies from federal agencies are “rarely or never” adequate. But 45 percent said this form of response “sometimes” met their information needs.

Others commented, however, that written responses can be helpful when they are prompt, succinct, and informative.

Among other top findings:

  • Federal agencies: Nearly half of the AHCJ members who participated in the survey said they “always” or “often” seek information from the federal government, and 41 percent do so “occasionally.” All but 4 percent deal with media officials at least occasionally when seeking information. Forty-one percent find it “very difficult” and 35 percent “somewhat difficult” to get the information they need.

  • State agencies: About 4 out of 10 respondents “always” or “often” seek information from state governments, and 85 percent go through the media office. Nearly 20 percent said it is “very difficult” and 45 percent find it “somewhat difficult” to get adequate responses.

  • County and municipal governments: Just over a quarter “always” or “often” seek information from these local government sources. Reporters are less likely to have to go through a media relations official – nearly 30 percent never do so. They also report greater responsiveness: Fewer than half rated these encounters as “very” or “somewhat” difficult.

  • Respondents reported that these three media-management practices are commonplace: requiring information and interview requests to go through the media office, requiring written questions, and having a public information officer sit in on interviews, whether on phone or in person.

  • The vast majority of respondents objected to these practices, but split over whether they were “major” or “minor” obstacles to getting needed information.

  • When asked which federal agencies were most difficult to work with, respondents ranked FDA worst, with 33 votes, followed by CDC (25), and CMS (23).

  • When asked which federal agencies were most helpful, CDC came out on top with 26 votes, followed by NIH (16), and FDA (12).

In the survey’s comment sections, respondents described their frustration with seemingly pointless procedural hurdles. “Public information officials tend to forget that their job includes the public,” one wrote, adding that these media spokespeople “tend to adopt a defend-and-deflect posture.”

Participants included a disproportionate number of freelance members. Freelancers make up 24 percent of AHCJ’s membership but accounted for 46 percent of those who answered the survey. There was also a slightly higher representation of online journalists and of journalists with more than 20 years’ experience.

Click here to see full results of the survey. A summary of the results is available in this PDF.