The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has agreed to recognize membership in the Association of Health Care Journalists as sufficient credential for any media briefing or press event sponsored by HHS or its agencies.
The HHS recognition provides a powerful lever for AHCJ members, especially freelancers, when they encounter obstacles to obtaining credentials at medical society and scientific meetings. Now members can point out that the federal government considers AHCJ membership adequate proof of a reporter’s legitimacy.
Representing AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, Vice Chair Felice J. Freyer and I brokered the agreement in one of our periodic problem-solving calls with the HHS public affairs leadership.
We pointed out that AHCJ’s membership criteria are among the most rigorous of professional journalism organizations. HHS recognized all categories of AHCJ membership – professional, associate and allied – as sufficient credential for participation in any press briefings, scientific meeting or dial-in Q &A.
Jeanne Erdmann, chair of AHCJ’s Freelance Committee, welcomed the news, calling HHS’s recognition an important step towards eliminating the “extra hoops” some government agencies and organizations erect for independent journalists seeking access to scientific meetings and press briefings. HHS policy typically sets the standard for science and medical groups.
“Independent journalists need the same access to government briefings and meetings of professional societies as staff journalists,” said Erdmann, who mostly writes about genetics and cancer.
“We cover beats, file news stories, and we’re always on the lookout for feature ideas. Perhaps most important, we need to connect with fellow reporters, editors, and researchers. Many times over the years I’ve gained quick access to top scientists because we’ve met face to face at meetings and established a relationship.”
A discussion on the AHCJ email discussion list alerted the Right to Know Committee to access problems for journalists who either worked freelance or on staff of news outlets unfamiliar to public information officers and other gatekeepers. Shortly afterwards, an AHCJ member forwarded me a press release from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services headlined “Media Advisory for Credentialed Media Only.” Yet, nowhere in the release was there a definition of “credentialed” nor guidance on which members of the media would be denied access to the call.
We protested the use of such exclusionary language on public and media announcements. It was apparent in our discussion with the HHS public affairs leadership, including Kevin Griffis, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, and Deputy Secretary Mark Weber, that it wasn’t clear even within the department what CMS meant by “credentialed.”
“This development is another example of how AHCJ’s focused and persistent advocacy results in meaningful benefits for our members,” Freyer said.
In the meantime, if you have problems with any HHS agency, use the appeals process outlined in this Covering Health blog post to get HHS public affairs supervisors to intervene. The blog post focuses on inadequate responses from HHS public information officers but the appeals process applies to all types of access problems.