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NASW survey finds that many journalists continue to face hurdles when reporting on federal agencies and seeking access to government scientists and experts.

Last year, the National Association of Science Writers surveyed its membership, which includes journalists reporting on government science and public information officers (PIOs) tasked with communicating that science, about their experiences with federal science agencies. Of our more than 2,000 members, 82 science journalists and 32 PIOs (17 at federal agencies) responded.

The survey, while small, is the most comprehensive in the past five years of reporters covering federal science agencies and revealed a highly inconsistent and often confusing landscape for journalists seeking access to the more than 60,000 scientists who work for the federal government. At one agency, for example, reporters’ requests for interviews with experts prompted myriad responses, including a phone call from the agency head, an email of boilerplate responses, delayed access to the requested expert, or no response at all.

The problem of press access to publicly funded science – one that many journalists would say is evergreen – clearly has persisted into the new presidential administration. The result is a public less well informed than it could be about a wide range of important issues, from pollution and climate change to public health and disease, including COVID-19.

Only a few federal PIOs responded to the survey, making it hard to draw general conclusions about their experiences. Anecdotally, PIO respondents said they did not feel that their agencies put up barriers to access, and several said their agency’s policy on press access is one of openness rather than gatekeeping. One notable exception was with regard to media outlets perceived to have an “agenda,” in which case access might be restricted.

Journalist respondents reported on nearly every federal agency that deals with science. Health agencies, such as CDC, FDA, and NIH and its sub-agencies, were among the most often cited as hindering reporters' access to sources and information. But non-health agencies, including NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department, and the U.S. Geological Survey, were also cited multiple times.

Common issues described by respondents include:

  • Media inquiries do not receive a response.
  • Experts are not allowed to speak to the press; reporters instead receive generic or boilerplate responses or are denied interviews.
  • Experts are required to coordinate interviews with PIOs, slowing down the reporting process.
  • Reporters are asked to submit questions ahead of an interview.
  • Reporters do not always provide enough time to properly respond to an inquiry.
  • Agencies respond slowly to requests, delaying stories.
  • Information is offered only on background or as a statement from an agency spokesperson, not from a specific expert.
  • Agencies employ inconsistent and/or opaque media and scientific integrity policies and practices. Even when scientific integrity policies guarantee the right of experts to speak to the media, agencies often do not honor such rights in practice.

When a requested interview was granted, coordination with a PIO was required most of the time, and a PIO sat in on the interview about half the time. Interviews were granted in what reporters considered a reasonable time frame about half the time. When a requested interview was declined, the agency provided information in other ways about half the time. About half of public data requests were honored within what reporters considered a reasonable time period.

Of those who responded to a question about how information access within the federal government has changed since they started working as a journalist, a majority – 63% – said access to information has decreased, 23% reported no change in access to government experts over time, and 14% reported an increase in access.

NASW is in a unique position to make recommendations because we are an organization with both journalist and PIO members. We have previously published information access standards, developed by journalists and PIOs working together in a consensus-building process. Now, combining those standards with these survey results, we put forward the following recommendations:

  • The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should undertake a government-wide review of scientific agencies' media policies and practices, and publish clear standards for responding to media inquiries. We are encouraged that the recently released White House report “Protecting The Integrity Of Government Science” includes the guidance that “Federal scientists should be able to speak freely, if they wish, about their unclassified research, including to members of the press.” We encourage all agencies to expediently and consistently implement this guidance.
  • Agencies should create and enforce across-the-board policies that are fair and transparent, and that clearly and explicitly allow and encourage experts to speak directly to members of the media regarding their expertise. Agencies should also make clear to scientists and other experts that they will not be punished if they speak to a reporter.
  • Agencies should consider, adopt, and publish fair and transparent media and scientific integrity policies, and follow these policies consistently.
  • Agencies should recognize that requiring PIOs to approve, coordinate and/or sit in on interviews may deter participation by subject matter experts in interviews and other interactions with the press. This harms government accountability, the public’s right to know, and ultimately the possibility of an informed public. Such requirements should be avoided to the extent possible.
  • PIOs' roles should be to facilitate communication of information and encourage direct and unfettered communication between journalists and scientists.
  • Journalists should treat sources and PIOs with respect and allow as much time as logistically possible for responses to inquiries, with the caveat that journalistic deadlines sometimes make short turnaround times unavoidable.

This report was prepared by members of the NASW Information Access Committee, with input from the NASW Board. For further information or to get involved with efforts to increase public access to scientific information, please contact:

DATA POINTS

Responses received

  • 82 responses from people identifying as "primarily a science journalist"
  • 17 responses from people identifying as "PIO at a federal agency"
  • 15 responses from people identifying as "PIO not at a federal agency"
  • 4 other

Among journalists

Wide range of agencies covered. Broadly speaking, about half cover primarily health agencies (FDA, CDC, NIH, HHS), and half cover physical/environmental science agencies (DOE, NASA, NOAA, NIST, USDA, USGS, etc)

Agencies most cited in responses to "In the past two years, what agencies have you had trouble gaining access to for interviews or information?"

  • CDC - 13 mentions
  • NASA - 8
  • NIH (including sub-agencies) - 8
  • FDA - 6
  • EPA - 5

Quotes from PIOs:

"I would like to know which government agencies are the biggest offenders to restricting access to information. As a PIO for a national laboratory, our policy encourages our researchers to talk to the media. I feel as though I and other PIOs are lumped in with the bad actors unfairly."

"Journalists could stand to learn a little humility. Respect and kindness goes a long way."

Quotes from reporters:

"It's become such a headache in recent years to get an interview that involves a federal agency that as a freelance journalist I avoid assignments that I can tell will require such an interview. Hoping that will change with the new administration."

"So the NIH has been very variable – some Institutes and offices are a dream to work with (e.g. the Office of the Director, NIGMS) and others have been like pulling teeth to get through to scientists or interviewees (e.g. NLM)."

"People aren't responsive or they're slow to respond. Sometimes it takes so much effort to get information and have a shot at an interview that I don't even bother."

"NASA [public affairs officers] outright blocking science team members who don't even work for NASA from speaking, or browbeating them into silence. It has gotten MUCH MUCH WORSE in the last two years."

"Messages go into a black hole. No response at all."

"CDC won't make scientists available."

"They have all been very helpful."

March 11, 2022

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