March 17, 2015

Survey: Public Not Receiving Information It Needs Due to Agency Restrictions

Full Results to Be Released at April 9 National Press Club Event

INDIANAPOLIS (March 17, 2015) -- A recent survey of science writers found they struggle to obtain information from government agencies for their stories and that they often must go through a public information office (PIO) to contact subject matter experts within agencies in order to get interviews.

Then they have to wonder how candid an expert can be because the PIOs always know when staff members speak to reporters and PIO employees often sit in on interviews to monitor them, survey respondents said.

But PIOs are a big help during times of crisis in getting information to the media via agency websites and social media accounts, as well as providing information not available online and coordinating interviews with experts, almost always on deadline, the findings suggest.

The survey, which was sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, received responses from 254 journalists interested in science, the environment, health and medicine. The survey queried journalists for their perspectives on how PIOs influence interviews and the information obtained from agency employees. It was open for response from Jan. 20 through Feb. 14.

These findings and a more detailed report based on the survey will be discussed in Washington, D.C., at a National Press Club event from 9:30 to 11 a.m. April 9 in the Zenger Room. Speakers at the event will include SPJ Freedom of Information Committee members Carolyn S. Carlson, who conducted the survey, and Kathryn Foxhall; and Michael Halpern, program manager of the Center for Science and Democracy. 

“This survey shows the difficulty of getting information to the public because of excessive PIO controls,” said David Cuillier, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. “Government gatekeepers should not be sitting in on interviews, blocking access to sources, or requiring questions be submitted in writing. It’s time for federal agencies in particular to change their ways, because in the end the public loses.”

Scientists have also been pushing for government agencies to allow researchers to speak freely to the press.

“Scientists play an important role in our democracy by providing critical expertise to decision makers and the American people,” said Deborah Bailin, a democracy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy who contributed to the survey as well as a recent scorecard of federal science agency media policies. “To fulfill this responsibility, they must be able to communicate freely with the media, the public, and their peers without interference from public information officers.”

Carlson says she hopes the survey will prompt both the science and journalism communities to find ways to work with agencies to ensure better transparency and openness.

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.