Reporters See Barriers to Science Information at Federal Agencies

Published Aug 4, 2015

 Washington (August 4, 2015)—Journalists say they find it hard to keep the public informed on issues of government science due to barriers put up by federal agencies. That’s the finding of a new report, “Mediated Access,” released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The report highlights findings of a survey of science writers conducted jointly by UCS and the Society of Professional Journalists and released earlier this year, along with additional information gained through in-depth interviews with science writers and agency public information officers.

Agency public information officers see themselves as facilitators between agency scientists and the press and cited staff availability, litigation, resources, and agency structure as constraints on their ability to respond to media inquiries. However, science writers reported that they or the scientists they want to interview are often required to get preapproval before conducting interviews, and reporters are often required to submit questions beforehand. They also said that agency public information officers frequently and unnecessarily sit in on interviews with scientists, which can make open conversation more difficult. In some cases, interviews are denied or interview requests evaded.

“Reporters need the chance to have frank, open conversations with agency scientists,” said Deborah Bailin, an analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and a co-author of the report. “The public has the right to know about the scientific information that shapes policy, and journalists have an important role to play in helping people understand the science and the decisions that policies are based on. Agencies have an obligation to work with journalists to get them the answers they need, quickly and honestly.”

President Obama said in 2009 that transparency would be a top priority in his administration. Some progress has been made in terms of agency policies that govern public communications, but journalists still run into unnecessary barriers when they’re trying to tell the story of what science agencies are doing. While strong policies are essential, full implementation of those policies is equally important, according to UCS.

“Federal agency scientists set policies that affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the products we buy,” said Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy. “When agencies limit access to those scientists, the public loses. We need better media policies and better practices to make sure scientists can share the work they’re doing in a clear, straightforward way.”

“Mediated Access” offers recommendations to federal agencies, journalists, and the White House on how to improve transparency and communication.