Officials, reporters offer conflicting advice on getting public documents

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

By Michelle Rupe Eubanks
For AHCJ

lilian-peake

Lillian Peake, M.D., M.P.H.

The fight by journalists to obtain public documents isn’t likely to get any easier, according to the four panelists who led the discussion “Right to know: Getting information from government agencies” as part of Health Journalism 2011.

Peter Ashkenaz, director of communications for the FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs, said his best advice for reporters looking to get these documents is to develop a relationship with the press officers at federal and state agencies.

“That means being friendly over the phone,” he said. “The worst thing that happens is to get a call from reporter who immediately starts demanding anything – information or data or anything like that.”

Even with kindness, Ashkenaz was clear that immediate answers weren’t always possible. In fact, at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, the organization for which he used to work, the backlog is at 6,000 unanswered Freedom of Information requests.

“And that’s down from where it used to be,” he said.

Another of the panelists, Lisa Chedekel, said she has never made a request for documents in the form of an FOI as it “means the process gets locked into paper and lawyers.” As a reporter at The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, she wrote a three-part investigation on a nursing home chain that prompted state reform and led to the owner of the chain being jailed. She is now with the Connecticut Health I-Team.

In response to Ashkenaz’s request that reporters “be friendly” when making their requests, Chedekel said, “I hate, as reporters, that personalities matter. It shouldn’t matter if you’re nice or crabby when you call CMS.”

Instead, she offered three tips to journalists: “You’ve got to schmooze, negotiate and stand your ground. If you don’t know how to schmooze, ask your friends. It doesn’t mean you’re not strong about asking your question. It’s still your demand. You’ve got to be human and nice, but that alone might not get you the information you’re after.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has developed a Web-based tool, the Open Government Guide on their site, rcfp.org, that’s designed to help reporters to compare the open meetings laws and open records acts from state to state.

Panelist Lucy A. Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee explained the site, but she was clear, too, that nothing can speed the process of making a request for public documents for virtually any agency.

“You have to be prepared to wait,” she said. “The backlogs are incredible. Some agencies are better than others, but prepare to wait.”

So how do reporters deal with public officials on whom they depend for this information?

Building the relationship might be the only method, if the goal is to get the documents, especially on deadline, according to Lillian Peake, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the Thomas Jefferson District for the Virginia Department of Health.

“I do think a relationship is important, but not because I feel reporters need to be nice to me,” she said. “What’s nice to know is that, after you’ve spent time with a reporter, the information will be reported accurately. If you work with a reporter who does their homework and will report it accurately, I feel more comfortable going in. I never try to withhold information, but I hope it comes out right. We’re working toward the same goal, after all, and that’s information that will benefit the public.”

Michelle Eubanks reports on health care for the TimesDaily newspaper in Florence, Ala.

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