Communicating Science: Barriers Journalists Face at Government Agencies

August 4, 2015 | 12:55 pm
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

Transparency invigorates a strong democracy. It inspires trust and spurs citizens to hold their leaders accountable. As citizens, we have the right to know about the scientific information shaping the policies that affect our health, our safety, and the environment, and our government has a responsibility to share this information openly.

Journalists play a key role in communicating to the public the scientific information generated and used by the government. Earlier this year, UCS partnered with the Society of Professional Journalists to conduct a survey of science, health, and environment reporters. We wanted to know about their experiences trying to obtain information and speak with scientific experts at government agencies.

In a new report released today, we highlight survey findings and contextualize them through in-depth interviews with journalists and agency public information officers (PIOs) that we conducted following the survey.  In our report, we discuss four key barriers journalists identified in their efforts to interview agency scientists:

  • Preapproval for interviews is required
  • Interviews are closely monitored
  • Interviews are denied
  • Tough questions are avoided

Journalists’ perspective

Journalists expressed particular frustration with interview preapproval and monitoring. These practices, unlike denying interviews or avoiding tough questions, are explicitly written into policies at many agencies, and journalists rightfully worry that agencies can misuse monitoring and preapproval requirements to chill speech, spin the science, and hide wrongdoing. When PIOs utilize preapproval and monitoring to curtail what journalists can ask and how interviewees can answer, they exert a form of control over how reporters understand an issue and what they write—and hence the information the public receives.

WV spill

Following the 2014 chemical spill in West Virigina’s Elk River, conflicting information and lack of access made it difficult for the media to assess the safety of the local water. Photo: National Guard

Journalists say they need agency scientists to be able to speak candidly, especially when the data or experts’ interpretation of the data differ from official reports. Such discrepancies can signal inappropriate political or corporate influence or interference and indicate the need for further inquiry. Journalists strongly support whistleblower protections as a vital mechanism for shielding agency experts from retribution when they publicly expose wrongdoing. However, they worry that agency employees may only be willing to risk alienating their employers by taking advantage of whistleblower provisions under the most egregious circumstances, as the act of whistleblowing can significantly damage or end a career.

The degree of control PIOs can exercise over journalists’ interactions with agency employees through preapproval and monitoring—even when that control is exercised responsibly—is a cause of concern within the journalism community.

Agencies’ perspective

We spoke to PIOs at NASA, NIH, EPA, and FWS and asked them what they thought of the barriers journalists had identified. All of the PIOs said that they strive to facilitate, and not inhibit, conversations between scientists and reporters. At some agencies, it’s easier to do that than at others. At NASA, for example, the 1958 Space Act mandates the dissemination of the agency’s scientific findings to the widest possible public. Correspondingly, survey respondents and journalists we interviewed spoke generally favorably about NASA’s openness. A survey respondent noted that “scientists at NASA are the easiest to interview” and that this agency, in contrast to others, has improved in recent years: “Nowadays, I can directly contact scientists at NASA and ask them questions. About a decade ago, this was not the case.”

However, in contrast to the barriers identified by reporters, PIOs at all four agencies cited three issues that they wished reporters were more cognizant of: staff capacity, bureaucracy, and litigation. The latter was emphasized as a particular concern at agencies that perform both research and regulatory functions, like the EPA and the FWS. PIOs have the added challenge of designating clear boundaries between communicating science and communicating policy. Those boundaries can be complex, and lines are not always easy to draw. In responding to a reporter’s inquiries, a PIO must make decisions about separating and clarifying where the responsibilities of scientists end and those of policy makers begin.

The bottom line

Ultimately, when PIOs, scientists, and journalists work together, everyone benefits. Journalists have their questions answered; write accurate, fact-based stories; and meet their deadlines. Scientists get to share their knowledge with the public. Agencies and policy makers gain credibility and trust. And the public obtains information about issues that affect their lives and communities. That’s why journalists, scientists, agencies, policy makers, and the public all have a stake in overcoming the above barriers to communicating government science.

Read our report to learn about the concrete steps agencies, journalists, and scientists can take to achieve that goal.