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FOI

Association of Health Care Journalists Member Survey

The survey was sent to the association’s professional category members during February and March 2016 and just over 20 percent completed the survey. Read more about the survey here. A PDF summary of the results is available here.

1.     Are you a professional journalist?

100% yes

2. What is your AHCJ membership category?

53.3% staff; 46.3% freelance; 0.5% allied (two skipped question)

3. How long have you been a journalist?

4. What is your primary outlet?

5. In which state do you conduct the majority of your reporting?

States with biggest numbers: California (30), New York (25), D.C. (19), Illinois(12), and Massachusetts (12). Nineteen said they report for a national audience.

6. How often do you seek information from each of the following?


Always

Often

Occasionally

Never

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

10.23%

22

46.51%

100

41.40%

89

1.86%

4

 

215

 

2.35

State agencies

10.70%

23

27.91%

60

46.98%

101

14.42%

31

 

215

 

2.65

County and municipal governments

7.14%

15

20.00%

42

44.29%

93

28.57%

60

 

210

 

2.94

 

7. How often do you deal with a media affairs office or public information officers to obtain information from each of the following?

 

Always

Often

Occasionally

Never

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

34.42%

74

32.56%

70

29.30%

63

3.72%

8

 

215

 

2.02

State agencies

25.94%

55

28.30%

60

29.25%

62

16.51%

35

 

212

 

2.36

County or municipal governments

13.11%

27

25.73%

53

32.52%

67

28.64%

59

 

206

 

2.77

 

8. How difficult is it for you to get the information you need from each of the following sources?

 

Very difficult

Somewhat difficult

Not very difficult

Not difficult at all

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

31.13%

66

44.81%

95

21.70%

46

2.36%

5

 

212

 

1.95

State agencies

19.47%

37

45.26%

86

31.05%

59

4.21%

8

 

190

 

2.20

County and municipal governments

8.09%

14

38.15%

66

39.31%

68

14.45%

25

 

173

 

2.60

 

9. In the past 12 months, would you say obtaining information from federal agencies has gotten better or worse?

 

Better

Worse

No change

NA

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

6.10%

13

21.60%

46

61.03%

130

11.27%

24

 

213

 

2.77

Selected comments:

–FDA and EPA are tighter than ever. I do not know why, but I can tell you that under President Obama, both agencies are less forthcoming than they were under Bush.

–Not sure why, but I've recently had good luck getting connected with knowledgeable officials, not just flacks. This happened at NIH, SAMHSA, and CDC. I admit I am amazed! 

–I write for chicago tribune and Washington Post.  Everyone is quick to respond

–I will say that in the last two year's CDC has become more responsive. But HHS is still a black hole. Some of NIH's institutes are better than others. 

–How could it get any worse?

–I have no idea why they won't respond, set up interviews, or only email me Newspeak

10. In the past 12 months, would you say that obtaining information from state agencies has become better or worse?

 

Better

Worse

No change

NA

Total

Weighted Average

State agencies

1.88%

4

14.55%

31

56.81%

121

26.76%

57

 

213

 

3.08

Selected comments:

–Yes, it is worse. With the recession, my state – the state of Illinois – has cut budget and this year has not passed it. As a result, there has been a layoff in staff statewide, especially staff that would serve journalists and their requests for information…

–They have been very responsive. Gov. John Kasich wanted to make sure when people deal with state offices they are provided better customer service ... this is for all residents, not just journalists.

– I have to submit all questions in writing, and, after 7 to 10 days (if I'm lucky), I'll get written answers. Almost all are so vague that I have to submit more questions, which means another 7 to 10 days of waiting. ...Each question has to be reviewed by the chief of communications for the department, who then monitors every step in the process.

–It was bad a year ago, too, in fact ever since Rick Scott took office as governor five years ago. If anything it's worse now because there have been people fired for providing info (reportedly – i can't prove it), because by now the professionals who knew and abided by public records laws have been replaced by political cronies....

–I find Minnesota state health agencies to be good at providing information and acknowledging requests for information or interviews. I don't think this is a change.

11. In the past 12 months, would you say that obtaining information from county and municipal governments has become better or worse?

 

Better

Worse

No change

NA

Total

Weighted Average

County and municipal governments

2.36%

5

6.60%

14

51.89%

110

39.15%

83

 

212

 

3.28

 Selected comments:

–They have always been easier to work with: partly I think it's because they know me/have prior experience with me and partly because so few journos contact them.

–It's worse with the new pr people being hired. Did you know there are 4 PR people for each one reporter. We are inundated by the pr people wanting to tell their story.

–Frankly, counties and local governments don't always have a PIO or media contact, so finding the right person to respond to questions about contracts has always been difficult…

–PIOs block attempts to speak with sources. On-camera interviews are rarely granted and instead the agencies issue a generic statement. Questions are left unanswered….

12. In general, how responsive are media affairs offices or public information officers from each of the following sources to your information needs and deadlines?

 

Very responsive

Somewhat responsive

Not very responsive

Not responsive at all

NA

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

12.56%

27

59.53%

128

19.07%

41

3.72%

8

5.12%

11

 

215

 

2.29

State agencies

15.79%

33

44.50%

93

17.22%

36

1.91%

4

20.57%

43

 

209

 

2.67

County and municipal governments

19.31%

39

36.14%

73

8.42%

17

2.48%

5

33.66%

68

 

202

 

2.95

Selected comments:

–I feel like this is a bit of an unfair question. Responsive–yes with canned statements and written answers. But rarely responsive in terms of providing requested interviews.

–Depends entirely on what story I'm doing and for which publication.  If it is a national or prestigious publication, they are responsive.  If it's a small publication, not.

–They may respond but then they don't help. Or will only discuss matters of fact on background. 

–To me, the feds seem overworked or understaffed. On the occasions when the people I have pre-existing relationships with become my point of contact on a specific story, I generally have a good experience. Dealing with people I don't know, or worse, sending an email to a general address, typically doesn't produce the result I want.

–There's a wide variety of local govts, and ones without pr people are the most responsive.

13. When media affairs offices or public information officers engage in the following practices, to what extent, if at all, do these practices hinder your ability to get the information you need? 

 

Not a problem

Minor problem

Major problem

NA

Total

Weighted Average

Requiring all information and interview requests to go through the media office

13.43%

29

47.69%

103

34.72%

75

4.17%

9

 

216

 

2.30

Requiring written questions

13.89%

30

39.81%

86

38.43%

83

7.87%

17

 

216

 

2.40

Sitting in on interviews either by phone or in person

20.56%

44

45.33%

97

28.50%

61

5.61%

12

 

214

 

2.19

Selected comments:

–When the PIO sits in on an interview, I don't know how much the conversation is being controlled by them and how much by the source.

–I don't like to be boxed in by written questions. We need to have conversations, not just one way answers…. I only give specifics about what I'm asking if it requires a specific number, figure or lots of research for them.

–Requiring written questions slows down the response time and the answers are so dense they usually cannot be used or sometimes even understood.

–Sometimes having a point of contact for the offices is a problem, but in my experience it has been helpful to get government sources to actually call back and to not be afraid of speaking with me.

–There have been so many times where a simple, non-controversial question could take 5 minutes if I could go straight to the person who knows the answer.

–Sometimes the PIO can be very helpful and remind the interview subject about info. Sometimes it's a pain because a person wants to talk but the PIO is trying to keep them confined to the script

–I do not care if they sit in. I can't remember the last time any media affairs person said anything during an interview other than, "I'll e-mail you that report." Sources don't show any signs of being intimidated by their presence.

–That last one? I completely loathe it and always make it a point to request the interview be one on one. Which never works, but I find if I get an email for the source and we communicate that way afterward, I get much better information. 

14. How often do these practices occur?

 

Always

Often

Occasionally

Never

NA

Total

Weighted Average

Requiring all information and interview requests to go through the media office

38.14%

82

48.37%

104

10.23%

22

0.47%

1

2.79%

6

 

215

 

1.81

Requiring written questions

11.63%

25

33.95%

73

44.19%

95

6.51%

14

3.72%

8

 

215

 

2.57

Sitting in on interviews either by phone or in person

13.55%

29

38.79%

83

37.85%

81

4.67%

10

5.14%

11

 

214

 

2.49

Selected comments:

–As a matter of policy, I will not submit all my questions in advance. I think it's reasonable to submit a few sample questions, to help the interviewee prepare.

–It is fine with me if the pr person sits in. It's even occasionally helpful.

–As a courtesy, I like the media office to know what I am doing. They are often helpful. I deal primarily with NIH and CDC. the docs like having the questions in advance so they can be prepared. Press officers rarely sit in on interviews, but most often they do it for their own knowledge. 

–These practices stultify the language used and constrain the information imparted.

15. After submitting questions before a requested interview, how often do you receive written responses instead of the interview from each of the following?

 

Always

Often

Sometimes

Rarely or never

NA

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

9.52%

20

30.00%

63

35.24%

74

11.90%

25

13.33%

28

 

210

 

2.90

State agencies

7.25%

15

16.43%

34

28.99%

60

14.01%

29

33.33%

69

 

207

 

3.50

County and municipal governments

2.45%

5

9.80%

20

27.94%

57

15.20%

31

44.61%

91

 

204

 

3.90

Selected comments:

–It has been my experience that it is very difficult to ever receive a phone or in-person interview with a federal agency spokesperson or official. Unless you are from a major newspaper such as The New York Times, I have found that media offices will only send written responses, if they ever respond….

–An interview would allow for a broader discussion but getting written & concise responses in a timely fashion can help meet our 4 p.m. story deadline.

–Often I get the written first, and it seems they are hoping you will go away or be pacified, and then if you persist and cajole them by phone, you might get an actual phone interview, and the biggest problem with this is the time suck. 

–Frankly, I prefer written responses, as long as they actually answered the questions. 

–This has been a common problem for me with FDA, sometimes they wouldn't even attribute the answers to a person! 

–Hate it but better than nothing.

–written responses often off topic, nonresponsive, or gibberish

16. When you receive written responses from the following, how often are they adequate for your story?

 

Always

Often

Sometimes

Rarely or never

NA

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

1.90%

4

13.33%

28

45.24%

95

25.71%

54

13.81%

29

 

210

 

3.36

State agencies

0.98%

2

13.66%

28

31.71%

65

18.05%

37

35.61%

73

 

205

 

3.74

County and municipal governments

1.48%

3

12.32%

25

25.12%

51

12.81%

26

48.28%

98

 

203

 

3.94

Selected comments:

–More than once the written responses were copied and pasted from the agency's website. 

–Written responses don't do much good in place of a TV interview.

–no way to follow up on an answer or pursue different line of questioning

–I usually wind up with a second round of written questions, and more delays. It's very inefficient and frustrating.

–The written responses are usually boilerplate BS.

–Written responses to written interview questions are the worst possible waste of time for everyone involved.

17. How useful are the online resources provided by the following government sources?

 

Very useful

Somewhat useful

Not very useful

Not useful at all

NA

Total

Weighted Average

Federal agencies

27.36%

58

60.85%

129

8.96%

19

0.94%

2

1.89%

4

 

212

 

1.89

State agencies

13.79%

28

53.20%

108

11.82%

24

2.96%

6

18.23%

37

 

203

 

2.59

County and municipal governments

6.60%

13

43.15%

85

15.74%

31

4.06%

8

30.46%

60

 

197

 

3.09

Selected comments:

–The CMS, FDA, CDC, and HHS OIG websites all contain an insane amount of relevant information. But finding it is so hard that sometimes I wonder if that isn't the point. The CMS' massive health data warehouse, however, is not for the faint of heart. Good luck navigating that thing without a degree in computer science.

–Information on-line can be helpful, but the time it takes to find the information and decipher it that is a problem.
–Online resources are frequently out of date and don't usually advance the topic(s) I'm reporting... .

–I pull a lot of data from federal databases, like SEER or the FBI crime databases.  I find it very useful. I also find material on the NIH and NCI websites explaining terms and diseases very useful. I find the budget information also useful.  And drug approval announcements over at the FDA are useful too.

18. Are there federal agencies you find particularly difficult to work with?

These agencies were mentioned by more than five respondents:

  • FDA 33

  • CDC 25

  • CMS 23

  • HHS 23

  • EPA 9

  • VA 6

Selected comments:

–Formerly the FDA, but it has improved over last couple of years.

–CDC is awful, awful, awful.

–The VA is a fortress; it makes the military seem easy. The FDA has all kinds of links and resources but harder to get a live person.

–CMS asks for questions in advance of an on-camera interview. I don't provide them. CMS also provides "suggested" questions. I don't use them.   

19. Are there federal agencies you find particularly helpful to work with?

Agencies with more than one mention:

  • CDC 26

  • NIH 16

  • FDA 12

  • CMS 8

  • AHRQ 6

  • HRSA 4

  • HHS 3

  • GAO 3

  • OIG 3

  • FTC 2

  • NOAA 2

  • VA 2

  • IRS 2

  • Census 2

Selected comments:

–CDC and NIH are very bureaucratic but tend to provide reasonable responses and useful info for most inquiries

–In general, regional offices of CMS and FDA are nicer to work with, but in the last few years they've been ordered not to talk to reporters, to send everything to the main offices.

–The actual CDC sources are usually super helpful once you get to talk to them.

–FDA is usually very responsive, although mostly by email.

–Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Someone actually talks to you.

–CMS has been fairly cooperative because I have a regional contact who is helpful.

20. What are the biggest obstacles you encounter in trying to get information from government entities?

141 responses fall into four general categories:

  1. Delays, slowness, missed deadlines

  2. Bureaucracy, “hoop-jumping”

  3. No access to person who knows the answers

  4. Message control: scripted quotes rather than real answers, “on background” answers

Selected comments:

–Biggest obstacles are getting to a human voice, and getting answers to my questions…

–… What makes me angry is that so many reporters are 'playing the game' and letting Washington call these shots, and the American public has no idea just how controlled these messages are…

–Their inability to break through their own bureaucracies and directly address a question. …

–None. The media relations office I communicate with at the NIH facilitates interviews and presents no obstacles.

–Lack of willingness to make people available for interviews and generally to provide information outside of press releases.

–Being able to have a conversation with the knowledgeable person or people in the agency, rather than having questions filtered through a gatekeeper who might not fully address them….

–I am an editor, mainly of radio stories, so one of the biggest problems is HHS and CMS rarely or never making a spokesperson available to speak on tape.

–requiring FOIA for basic information requests...

–The truth is they are all too happy with "declined to comment."

–Long waits for answers and then receiving responses close to deadline that either ignore many of the questions or that say nothing, long waits for records, flacks who insist on managing everything and don't put me on to their experts.

–FOIA requests can take months to be filled, then they are almost completely redacted.

–Public information officials tend to forget that their job includes the public. They tend to adopt a defend-and-deflect posture that shows fear of newsgatherers.