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Major journalism groups demand agency end newsgathering constraints Date: 12/02/09

Dec. 2, 2009


Len Bruzzese, AHCJ Executive Director, 573-884-5606, bruzzesel@missouri.edu

Letter sent to the FDA

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Eleven major journalism organizations, representing thousands of journalists, are demanding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration end requirements that journalists and FDA employees notify or obtain permission from an agency official in order to conduct an interview.

The Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association, the Radio Television Digital News Association and several other journalism groups were joined by more than two dozen individual journalists in signing the letter sent to the agency's Transparency Task Force this week.

"These relatively new practices hinder reporters' ability to learn the truth by inhibiting and sometimes barring employees from providing essential information," says the letter.

The journalists also object to public information officers listening in on interviews.

"These restrictions have become increasingly widespread in federal agencies and other organizations," said Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Reporters are forced to make an application, usually through the public relations office, for each conversation, however brief, and often must wait days for permission to speak to a staff member, he said. Even then, they sometimes have their requests ignored or denied entirely, he added.

More seriously, agencies insist on tracking, controlling and monitoring interviews. "That practice chills communication and inhibits public servants from sharing information with reporters," Ornstein said. "And it limits what the public is allowed to know about its government."

The groups wrote to the FDA's Transparency Task Force, which was created under the new administration, asking that it end these restrictions and set an example for other parts of the federal government.

The letter emphasized that although these restrictions have increased greatly in recent years, nearly all prior administrations allowed open, unfettered communication between agency employees and the media.

It has been during approximately the last two administrations that the rules have been implemented and grown steadily more constraining, according to journalists who have been reporting over that period.

"We are tremendously heartened by President Obama's pledge to create an unprecedented level of government openness. It's in that spirit we want to tell the administration that it's not possible to do that and maintain these inherited constraints which did not exist under most administrations," said Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The letter also stressed that public information officers can play an important role in answering questions and facilitating interviews, when requested to do so.

"But when they forbid, delay or monitor contact between reporters and employees, they interfere with the public's right to know," the letter said.