The recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people, became another occasion when federal agencies shut the door on reporters seeking answers, fueling public anxiety with their silence.
But after complaints from journalism organizations, including AHCJ, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued a mea culpa and a pledge “to work to reach that critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information the public expects and needs to protect their health.”
The CDC told West Virginia health officials on Jan. 15 that pregnant women should not drink the water until the chemical, called Crude MCHM, was at “nondetectable levels.” Reporters from the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette had a lot of questions about this order – but could get no answers from the CDC press office. Continue reading
Image by MapScience via flickr.
The Los Angeles Times today published an op-ed by the co-chairs of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to end the secrecy surrounding the multibillion-dollar food stamps program.
“The debate in Congress about cutting the food stamp program has sparked predictable clashes between those who want to help the poor and those who want to cut government spending,” the opinion column said. “But strangely missing from the arguments is a shocking fact: The public, including Congress, knows almost nothing about how the program’s $80 billion is spent.” Continue reading
Congress should not roll back public access to taxpayer-funded research reports, AHCJ wrote in a letter to members of Congress (PDF).
AHCJ is opposing the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699), which would remove the public’s access to medical journal articles about publicly funded research. They are currently available for free to the public no more than 12 months after their publication in a medical journal.
“Our board of directors believes strongly that more transparency, not less, is vital for the public to assess how funds are spent and to benefit from and learn about the research underwritten by the government,” board president Charles Ornstein wrote in a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “The recently introduced Research Works Act is a step in the wrong direction.”
In the letter, AHCJ rebutted medical publishers’ assertions that the current system doesn’t work.
“We understand the objections of such publishers, who contribute editorial support and fear loss of income,” Ornstein wrote. “But it’s worth noting that much of that support comes from unpaid peer reviewers. And publishers still maintain a year of exclusivity, enabling them to reap profits during the time when interest in research is highest.”
In 2010, AHCJ voiced concerns about a similar bill, which did not become law.
Responding to a report that federal health officials met in private with Wall Street investors, AHCJ leadership sent a letter to the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services objecting to the selective release of information to stakeholder groups.
The Project on Government Oversight reported earlier this month that a dozen senior staff at CMS met with five Wall Street professionals for nearly two hours in 2009 and that a senior CMS analyst filed an ethics complaint about it.
AHCJ’s letter, signed by president Charles Ornstein, states, “We feel strongly that journalists should receive information from CMS no later than other groups. If guidance or previews are provided to special interest groups, it also should be provided to journalists, who inform the public.”
The letter to acting CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner was sent on Dec. 15.
AHCJ does not seek to prevent CMS from meeting with members of the public including stakeholders. Nor is the group asking for journalists to receive confidential information from the agency about pending decisions.
“But we don’t think the public should be the last to know about CMS actions. Journalists should be in the loop when information is released,” the letter said.
The public’s interest in government transparency is growing and citizens are “becoming more active in asserting their right to government information,” according to a new survey from the Media Law Resource Center and the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
The survey also found, perhaps less surprisingly, that news organizations are less likely to sue for access to public information because of a lack of resources.
The new findings include both good news and bad, said Kenneth F. Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
“If ordinary citizens are becoming more aware of their access rights, and more assertive regarding them, it is indeed a reason to be gratified,” he said. “However, if news organizations are trending toward being less gung-ho in an area once regarded as a matter of responsibility and stewardship, there is the frightening potential that journalism could suffer, as could the health of our democracy.”
Among the findings:
- Media lawyers and representatives of the NFOIC member coalitions said they had seen an increased number of open government violations in recent years.
- The number of open records requests made by private citizens and other non-media organizations has increased.
- 60 percent of media lawyers surveyed noted a decrease in open government lawsuits by media organizations over the past five years.
The survey also looked at the prevalence and effectiveness of FOI hotlines, finding that they “got generally high marks from all respondents.”
(Hat tip to Joey Senat, Ph.D.)
In an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times, Felice J. Freyer and Charles Ornstein, members of AHCJ’s board of directors, write that releasing accurate information in a public health emergency reassures the public that officials are being honest about what they know and what the risks are.
The piece includes several examples of public health emergencies in which officials have been less than forthcoming.
As board members of the Assn. of Health Care Journalists, we have been troubled by the way some health officials cite privacy laws as the reason for withholding information that, by law, doesn’t have to be private.
The op-ed piece also introduces the set of guidelines that AHCJ established with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the National Association of County and City Health Officials about what information should be made public.
Previously: Health officials, journalists agree on standards