Reporters: Federal public affairs staffers block access to information

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.

Reporters who cover federal government agencies say they face impediments to getting information to the public because of interference from public affairs officers, according to a survey released by the Society of Professional Journalists. [Press release]sunshine-week1

About 70 percent of the 146 journalists who responded to the survey said they had a positive relationship with the public information officers with whom they work, and most reported that officers quickly respond to their queries most of the time.

However, overwhelmingly, comments from the surveyed journalists indicated increasing frustration at what they perceive as efforts by agencies to control the message to the public. “PAOs tend to make up information,” stated one respondent. “You can never trust the information they provide. They make our jobs almost impossible and they treat journalists with barely any professionalism.”

Carolyn S. Carlson, lead author of “Mediated Access: Journalists’ Perceptions of Federal Public Information Officer Media Control,” notes that reporters are “running into interference rather than assistance from the very people hired by the government to help them. Public affairs officers need to facilitate media coverage, not interfere or block it.”

The survey reveals that reporters have to get approval from public affairs officials before interviewing sources, something AHCJ and other journalism groups have protested in the past, and some agencies are not allowing interviews of employees. About 84 percent reported their interviews have been monitored by PIOs, another issue AHCJ has written about.

Journalists agreed that government control over who is interviewed is a form of censorship and that the public is not getting vital information as a result of these controls.

The survey was conducted by Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and David Cuillier, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., on behalf of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, of which both are members. They were assisted by Kennesaw journalism student Lindsay Tulkoff.

Tell us about your experiences with HHS

Tomorrow AHCJ will hold our quarterly conference call with the HHS media office. This usually includes a summary of our members’ experiences with the various HHS media offices (CDC, FDA, NIH, NIDA, CMS, etc), as well as discussion of specific issues.

As always, we depend on you to inform these discussions. Have you interacted with HHS or any of its divisions in recent months? Felice Freyer, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, would like to hear from AHCJ members. Please send her a quick note describing what happened, whether it was positive or negative. Are there any concerns you’d like us to raise with them? Please send your comments to felice.freyer@cox.net or share them in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Reporters: Federal public affairs staffers block access to information

  1. Susan ("Sue") Darcey

    Reporter access to slide presentations presented at PUBLIC Food and Drug Administration workshops continues to be really hit or miss.

    Last week, March 8 and 9, I attended a two-day, (all day, both days) workshop targeted to device industry and FDA folks on cardiovascular metallic implants — basically about the possible leaching of heavy metals from stents and other cardiovascular implants, as well as corrosion of these implants inside the human body.

    While I had a tape recorder with me and was able to tape most of what I needed, two physician presenters gave really interesting slide presentations at the start of the meeting, which laid out the problems of metallic implants leaching into surrounding tissue — yet there was no way to immediately get copies of these slides, to follow along, or to aid in writing a story, post-meeting.

    I did go up to the moderator and chair of the meeting (Erica Takai, FDA Office of Science and Engineering Laboratories) afterwards, and asked her if there was anyway I could get the slides from FDA at this PUBLIC meeting, (so that I could write a story in time for my deadline) and she said I would have to go through FDA press officer Erica Jefferson, afterwards. I sent an email to Erica yesterday (Monday, March 12), she’s “looking into it,” but my story is due Wednesday (March 14), and nothing has appeared in my inbox yet.

    I’ve had similar problems obtaining slides from FDA public meetings/workshops on several other occasions, also.

    Also — FDA employees at the Silver Spring headquarters are very, very frightened and too intimidated to talk to reporters AT ALL, which makes covering the latest at what’s going on at the agency extraordinarily difficult.

    Of course, that whole FDA White Oak/Silver Spring facility is liked an armed camp, you’d think it was Fort Detrick, where they keep the Ebola and Smallpox viruses. I swear there are more guards at FDA, than there are doctors and scientists at that facility, and the metal detectors and the regulations for your movement around that campus, give it more of the feel of “Stalag 17” than of a government office building/campus.

    It’s actually easier to access FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, in the Halls of Congress, than it is to try to get into the FDA building.

    At least at NIH, once you get your badge, you are allowed to walk around the campus. At FDA, you (the press) are watched and controlled everywhere you go. They won’t even let you visit the main cafeteria, particularly if you are attending a meeting in “Building 31”. They try to force you to stay there for lunch and eat their lousy rubber sandwiches.

    Last Friday, I made the mistake of going out for lunch in White Oak, and then trying to return to the meeting (in the ominous and heavily guarded “Building 31”), this time with my backpack, and it took me 15 minutes to get through the metal detectors, because I had forgotten about a pair of tiny nail scissors buried in the bottom of the the backpack.

    I had to walk through the metal detectors 3 times, they called over a female guard to wand me all over, and then it took four guards and 5 passes through the X-ray machine before they track down my errant nail cutters.

    The employees there have got to hate working at FDA, also. They are kept as virtual prisoners on that campus — I once asked a doctor/product reviewer if she knew of any restaurants in nearby White Oak or Silver Spring where she liked to go to lunch, and she told me she had never been off site!!

  2. Susan ("Sue") Darcey

    FOLLOW-UP TO MY MONDAY, MARCH 12 ATTEMPT TO GET SLIDES FROM A PUBLIC FDA METALLIC CARDIOVASCULAR IMPLANT/CORRODING AND LEACHING TESTS- WORKSHOP

    (from Sue Darcey, on Thursday, March 15)

    I did ultimately get one very useful slide presentation, via FDA press officer Erica Jefferson, (THANK YOU, ERICA!) from the public cardiovascular metallic implants workshop that was held March 8-9. Erica forwarded two slides to me late Tuesday evening — one was a handout given to participants when they walked into the meeting; another was from a consultant from the outfit “Exponent”, presented at the workshop

    However, two of the slide presentations given by Univ. of Alabama scientists at the public meeting were withheld, by the scientists themselves, according to Jefferson. The two did not want details of their studies publicized, as they intended to publish results in a medical journal, later.

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