HHS adjusts news media guidelines in response to AHCJ member concerns

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 Department of Health and Human Services has revised its media guidelines, in response to some of the issues raised by AHCJ members. The revisions take effect today.

The changes, which all appear on page 5 of the guidelines for HHS staff (PDF), are as follows:

  • In the section prohibiting nonemployee contractors from speaking for the agency, HHS has added the sentence, “Exceptions to this practice may be considered on an individual basis.” This was in response to a member’s complaint that she had been barred from speaking with a contractor who was the only person knowledgeable about the subject of her story.
  • This sentence was added: “Meetings that are open to the public are, by definition, open to the media.” This was in response to AHCJ’s complaints about a series of “listening sessions” held last fall across the country from which the news media was excluded.
  • The paragraph concerning attribution was clarified. It now says:  “As a matter of routine, media interviews should be on the record and attributable to the person speaking to the media representative, unless an alternate attribution arrangement is mutually agreed upon in advance. HHS recognizes the following types of attribution: …” The document then provides definitions for “on the record,” “not for attribution,” “on background” and “off the record.” The previous version, which lacked the definitions and the phrase “As as matter of routine,” had led some to conclude that not-for-attribution interviews were barred.

HHS declined to remove one clause that has troubled some members: The requirement that employees “coordinate with the appropriate public affairs office/personnel” before doing an interview.

The guidelines were first issued in September, after AHCJ requested written ground rules. Journalists were told then that the document was final and in effect, but could be changed in response to questions or complaints. AHCJ members responded with their concerns and AHCJ shared them with the agency, resulting in these changes.

The same applies to the revisions. Dori Salcido, assistant secretary for public affairs, said she welcomed input from AHCJ members about the guidelines. Please send your reactions to the chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, Felice Freyer (felice.freyer@cox.net), so any new concerns can be conveyed to HHS.

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