Survey reveals PIOs creating barriers for science/ environmental journalists

By Dr. Carolyn Carlton, SPJ Georgia member and Kennesaw State SPJ student chapter adviser

Science and environmental writers struggle to obtain information from government agencies, according to a report from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Carolyn Carlton mug 1

Carolyn Carlson

The report, called “Mediated Access: Transparency Barriers for Journalists’ Access to Scientists and Scientific Information at Government Agencies,” is based on previously released survey results.

Science and environmental writers must often go through a public information office (PIO) to contact subject matter experts with agencies to secure interviews.

“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. Our government has the responsibility to share this information openly,” the report begins.

Carolyn S. Carlson, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member and associate professor in the Department of Communication at Kennesaw State University, co-authored the report and says it gives a deeper understanding of the survey findings released in April and provides more information from UCS interviews with veteran science writers.

“The report also provides a deeper use of the open-end comments from the survey,” said Carlson, a SPJ Georgia member. “They have taken this information and created a list of recommendations for scientists, agencies and journalists. Many of these recommendations we agree with, but there are a couple of issues where SPJ has been pursuing a different position.”

SPJ is against any entity forcing or “recommending” that employees report all contacts with the press and it is against PIOs monitoring interviews and preapproving information for a variety of reasons, including:

• It slows down and interferes with the news gathering process. 
• Employees often severely limit what they say under such mandates for notification and monitoring, sometimes dangerously so.
• Agencies can misuse monitoring and preapproval requirements as ways to chill speech, spin the science and hide wrongdoing.
• PIO-chaperoned interviews are often no better than obtaining information from the PIO itself. 
• When PIOs are involved, journalists may be forced to use anonymous sources for some of the best stories about government, which is not ideal.
• Journalists need agency experts to be able to speak candidly, including in instances when data or experts’ interpretation of the data differ from official reports.
• 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.

David Cuillier mug

David Cuillier

“Government gatekeepers should not be mandating reporting of contacts, sitting in on interviews, blocking access to sources or requiring questions be submitted in writing,” says David Cuillier, SPJ FOI Committee chair. “It’s time for federal agencies in particular to change their ways, because in the end the public loses.” 

However, those interviewed said 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 report was based on the survey, which 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.

Carolyn Carlton mug 1Dr. Carolyn Carlson is an associated professor of communication at Kennesaw State University and member of the Student Law Center, Society of Professional Journalists. Carlson is also a member for the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee and SPJ Georgia First Amendment/FOI/Ethics Committee. She also serves on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 


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