Agencies Control Scientists’ Contacts with the Media

Published Apr 8, 2004

Media policies at federal agencies have been changed in recent years to increase control over communications about climate science. Scientists studying climate change have been subjected to special interference when attempting to communicate their research with the press. Scientists experiencing the greatest interference are those working on "controversial" topics such as the extent of human influence on the climate or the impact of a warmer climate on ecological and agricultural systems.

In 2004, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a new media policy that implemented top-down control over press contacts.  NOAA public affairs officers reminded scientists and managers of the new policy in emails such as the following:

From NOAA public affairs officer Erica Rule:

"A study on hurricanes and global warming by Emanuel Kerry [sic] will be released in Nature this Sunday. As this topic might generate media inquiries—consider this e-mail a reminder that ALL media requests are to be directed to NOAA Public Affairs..."1

From NOAA public affairs officer Jim Teet:

"I have been informed that any request for an interview with a national media outlet/reporter must now receive prior approval by DOC [Department of Commerce, NOAA's parent agency]. Please ensure everyone on your staff is aware of this requirement..."2

Although these emails seem to show a media policy intended to apply to all scientists, NOAA public affairs officer Jana Goldman confirmed that the policy was unevenly enforced. Certain scientists working on topics considered by the agency to be sensitive received special scrutiny.3 In some cases, public affairs officials actively denied agency scientists access to the media due to the politically sensitive nature of their work.

Dr. Thomas Knutson is a NOAA climate modeling expert working with hurricane specialists to investigate the link between climate change and tropical cyclone activity. He has experienced several instances of political interference in his work, illustrating the power of NOAA's media policies and practices to control the communication of scientific research.

In September 2004, Knutson published a paper in the Journal of Climate suggesting that an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could lead to more intense tropical cyclones with increased precipitation and flood potential. His paper coincided with the Florida hurricane season, and was picked up by The New York Times, thereby gaining a tremendous amount of visibility for his research. On July 31, 2005, a study by Dr. Kerry Emanuel was published in the journal Nature linking increased hurricane intensity to increased sea-surface temperatures (which in turn have been linked to global warming) The anticipation of media requests related to Emanuel's article prompted Erica Rule to remind NOAA employees of the requirements of NOAA's media policy (see above).

That weekend, after returning from a trip, Dr. Knutson received a voicemail from a NOAA public affairs officer named Kent Laborde asking whether he would be interested in appearing on Ronald Reagan, Jr.'s MSNBC talk show to discuss hurricanes and climate change.4 Shortly thereafter, he received a voicemail from the show's production staff. As it was the weekend, Knutson responded directly to the show staffer to confirm his appearance and requested they contact Laborde on Monday morning. That Monday, Laborde left Knutson voicemails apologizing for the confusion and stating that the "White House said no" to Knutson's appearance. Laborde also notified Knutson that he had already called the show and offered as an excuse that Knutson was too tired for the interview after his trip.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) record shows that instead of approving requests for interviews with Knutson, the NOAA public affairs office routed all media inquiries related to hurricanes and Emanuel's article to Dr. Chris Landsea, another NOAA scientist familiar with the Emanuel study, but who, unlike Knutson, contested the connection between hurricane intensity and global warming. Within a few days, Landsea was granted an interview with USA Today.5

Following Hurricane Katrina, NOAA scientists were again in high demand for media interviews talking about the connection between hurricanes and global warming. On the morning of October 16, 2005, Knutson received a request to appear on the CNBC show "On the Money."6 Knutson called Laborde for approval, and FOIA documents show that Laborde forwarded the request to Chuck Fuqua, deputy director of communications at the Department of Commerce, who responded: "What is Knutson's position on global warming vs. decadal cycles? Is he consistent with Bell and Landsea?" 

Knutson recalls that Laborde soon called back to question him about what he planned to say—especially with regard to any trends in hurricane activity—and that Knutson "supplied a guarded response." Laborde then wrote to Fuqua, "He is consistent, but a bit of a different animal. He isn't on the meteorological side. He's purely a numerical modeler. He takes existing data from observation and projects forward. His take is that even with worse [sic] case projections of green house gas concentrations, there will be a very small increase in hurricane intensity that won't be realized until almost 100 years from now." Two minutes later Fuqua responded, "Why can't we have one of the other guys on then?"7 Knutson soon received a voicemail notifying him that the interview had been rejected.

In another example of agencies' public affairs officials preventing scientists from communicating about their own research, Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)'s Climate Analysis Section, published an article in December 2003, in the journal Science, titled "Modern Global Climate Change." The article, co-authored with Thomas Karl, director of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, surveyed then-current climate science research and concluded, "modern climate change is dominated by human influences." NOAA had been informed of the pending publication, which included a disclaimer stating, "this article reflects the views of the authors and does not reflect government policy."8

Nevertheless, media inquiries for Karl were diverted to Dr. Jim Mahoney, a political appointee (now retired) who at the time served as both assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA deputy administrator.9 In a December 4, 2003 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mahoney downplayed the significance of the peer-reviewed study, stating: "My own view is somewhat more open-minded, and from my perspective we don't really understand these things as well as we might."10

Similar problems at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are documented in this guide under the entry J is for NASA scientist James Hansen. Such problems were partly alleviated at NASA by a revised media policy issued in February, 2006.11

1. Rule, E. 2005. Possible media attention. Email to NOAA staff, July 27. Obtained via FOIA request on July 31, 2006.
2. Teet, J. 2005. DOC Interview Policy. Email to NOAA staff, September 29. Originally published by L. Alexandrovna, 2005. Commerce Department tells National Weather Service media contacts must be pre-approved. The Raw Story, October 4. Accessed December 22, 2006.
3. Goldman, J. 2006. Interview with Tarek Maassarani in Silver Spring, MD, October 7. Jana Goldman is a public affairs officer at NOAA.
4. Knutson, T. 2006. Interview with Tarek Maassarani in Princeton, NJ, April 13. Thomas Knutson is a research scientists at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
5. Laborde, K. 2005. USA Today Interview. Email to Chris Landsea, research scientist at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory, July 28. Kent Laborde is a public affairs officer at NOAA. Obtained via FOIA request on August 9, 2006.
6. Knutson, 2006.
7. Fuqua, C. 2005. Media request for tonight with Knutson. Email to Kent Laborde, October 19. Chuck Fuqua is deputy director of communications at the Department of Commerce. Obtained via FOIA request on August 9, 2006.
8. T.R. Karl and K.E. Trenberth. Modern Global Climate Change, Science 302:1719-1723. Accessed December 22, 2006.
9. Trenberth, K. 2006. Interview with Tarek Maassarani in Boulder, CO, April 6. Kevin Trenberth is head of the Climate Analysis Section at NCAR.
10. D. Perlman, 2003. Climate Change Laid to Humans: Report warns there's "no doubt" industry is primary cause. San Francisco Chronicle, December 4.
11. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 2006. Policy on the release of information to the news and information media. Accessed December 22, 2006.