About AHCJ: General News

FOIA survey: FDA's slow response means stories go unpublished Date: 04/10/08

COLUMBIA, Mo. – More than two-thirds of health care reporters taking part in a First Amendment survey have had stories held or left unpublished because the Food and Drug Administration did not respond to FOIA requests in a timely manner.

Only a third of reporters said they received a response within the required 20 days called for in the federal Freedom of Information Act. Many waited months or years – or never received requested data, according to the survey and analysis conducted for the Association of Health Care Journalists by graduate students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Nearly half of the reporters completing the survey said they were "very dissatisfied" with the FDA's processing of FOI requests, although only 15 percent ever filed complaints. Many said they were satisfied with the information they received, with a quarter of them saying the information resulted in major stories.

AHCJ is an independent, nonprofit organization of more than 1,000 health journalists dedicated to advancing public understanding of health care issues. Its mission is to improve the quality, accuracy and visibility of health care reporting, writing and editing. The survey is part of AHCJ's ongoing effort to track the responsiveness of federal health agencies to data requests from journalists.

Medill's graduate students, who conducted the research, were part of the journalism school's Washington, D.C., reporting program.

A student team traveled to FDA headquarters in Rockville, Md., to request documents from the reading room. Documents requested included a list of all FOIA requests made by journalists over the past 10 years. Surveys and interviews were conducted with these journalists, as well as members of AHCJ. The survey received 169 responses, including 44 from reporters who had filed FOIA requests in the past five years.

The FDA fared poorly in this survey even in comparison to other federal agencies. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said their experiences were better with other agencies and about half said FDA officials contacted for help in fulfilling requests were unhelpful.

"As pressure mounts to increase funding and institute structural reforms at the FDA, increasing the agency's responsiveness to journalists must be made a top priority. Short of that, the agency cannot effectively be held accountable to the public it serves," said AHCJ board member Mary Chris Jaklevic, chair of the association's Right to Know Committee.

While some reporters believe FDA understaffing is a problem, FDA officers said the number of requests made to the FDA annually has dropped significantly as more information is placed on the government Web site.