AHCJ stresses priorities in reviewing government media policies

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.

The newly drafted media policy of the Department of Health and Human Services has generated some discussion concerning one aspect of the guidelines – the requirement that federal employees notify media officials before talking with reporters.hhs-media-guidelines

The Association of Health Care Journalists has not yet taken an overall position on the HHS media policy, which includes many provisions. The organization had encouraged the department to develop such a policy so that reporters and public information officers would have a common understanding about how requests for information would be handled.

AHCJ fundamentally believes that anyone who wants to talk to a reporter should be free to do so. We object to anything that obstructs such interactions. We also have confidence that motivated sources and diligent reporters will continue to find each other regardless of any policy.

AHCJ acknowledges that the requirement for media-office clearance of interviews is an unwelcome, although longstanding, practice. But our priorities at this time are making sure reporters can speak with subject-matter experts by deadline, timely responses from media officers to reporters’ questions, and access to public data.

The vast majority of AHCJ members work outside the Beltway. When they call Washington, they want to be quickly connected with a source who can answer their questions – and they rely on public affairs officers to make that connection.

AHCJ has been pushing for more responsiveness and fairness from those officers. We insist that AHCJ members get an answer – from a quotable source – before their deadline, regardless of the size or prestige of the outlet they work for. Our members also want access to publicly available datasets about the quality of care delivered by local health care institutions and problems identified by inspectors.

AHCJ will continue to focus on working for the changes that make the most difference for most of our members.

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1 thought on “AHCJ stresses priorities in reviewing government media policies

  1. Jim Dickinson

    With great respect (I know some of the people involved), I think AHCJ’s high-level contacts with HHS on this matter have been insufficiently skeptical.

    Calling on HHS to produce the guidelines was (in retrospect) an invitation for them to produce a power-grab, which this document is.

    The document is intimidatory in tone, with its plentiful uses of “must”, “required” and “should.” In my experience, government employees are easily intimidated — and why not? Their employment benefits are generous, and their environment coercive. Depending on the insecurities of their immediate (often politically appointed) supervisors, they work in fear of an unfavorable performance rating if they inadvertently step out of line.

    Thus, this document in my opinion (backed by 36 years of reporting with “moles” and other confidential sources in FDA) is a deliberate effort to silence dissidents and to corral information perspectives and interpretations into the official line.

    AHCJ’s hopeful ideal that such HHS agency mavericks will find a way of expressing themselves to the outside world through our ranks of investigative reporters, regardless of this guideline document, is misplaced in my experience. For every maverick who somehow perseveres to make his point and not be fired (I can count only two at FDA in my 36 years), untold hundreds are silenced by management oppression, of which these guidelines are the latest example.

    If your objective as a journalist is simply to report who said what, rather than whether what they said was reasonable, then maybe these HHS guidelines aren’t much of problem. But for me, a life-long truth-seeker, they are a huge problem and undermine the First Amendment in an egregious way.

    Dictatorships of the past have known the importance of controlling public information. So does HHS.

    Jim Dickinson, Editor, FDA Webview (jim@fdaweb.com)

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