Access Denied? A Survey of Science Writers Sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Union of Concerned Scientists

April 9, 2015 | 12:11 pm
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

Earlier this year, the Center for Science and Democracy published a report on media policies at 17 federal agencies. More than four years after the Obama administration had issued a directive ordering reform of federal scientific integrity policies—including those governing media access—we found evidence that public communications are too often censored, constrained, or funneled through agency media offices.

Even at agencies that received high scores for their polices, anecdotal reports and earlier research indicate that, in practice, obstacles to clear communications between agency scientists and the media still exist. For example, a 2011 survey conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica found that the free flow of information between agency scientists and the press was not what journalists had hoped for, given the Obama administration’s promises of transparency.

That’s why—in an effort to shed further light on the issue of policy versus practice—UCS partnered with the Society of Professional Journalists to conduct a new survey of science, health, and environment reporters. We wanted to know about their more recent experiences trying to obtain information and speak with experts at government agencies at all levels.

What did we find? Things haven’t changed all that much since 2011:

  • Public information offices routinely require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees.
  • Sometimes, when reporters ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the public information office.
  • It’s not unusual for reporters to have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert.
  • Despite reporters’ positive working relationships with public information officers, a majority feel that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of the barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices

Ultimately, suppressing information challenges our democracy. Suppressing information and ideas in the ways this survey indicates harms the public understanding necessary to solve problems our nation’s most pressing problems. It allows for manipulation of the public for political or other reasons that may not be in the public interest. And it permits problems and malfeasance to go on unchecked.

Scientists and journalists have a shared stake in addressing these problems. At a release event at the National Press Club today, Carolyn Carlson, a former SPJ president, and UCS’s Michael Halpern are discussing the survey findings. Stay tuned for updates on this event and an expanded report on the survey’s findings, supplemented with interviews and recommendations, to be released in June.