The Society of Environmental Journalists has urged the US Environmental Protection Agency to end its policy of interjecting press officers between news reporters and the agency scientists they want to interview.
SEJ made that and other recommendations to EPA in formal comments submitted in response to EPA's August 5, 2011, draft Scientific Integrity Policy. The policy, drawn up under orders from the Obama White House, was supposed to protect the integrity of science by preventing political interference. While the draft policy addresses a range of science integrity issues, SEJ comments focused only on issues pertaining to open information.
SEJ's comments noted that:
"SEJ has been engaged in dialogue for nearly two years with top agency public affairs officials about persistent and serious problems our members have in obtaining data, setting up interviews and gathering the most basic information about EPA activities on a variety of important issues. We previously documented these concerns in March 2010, in commenting on EPA’s Open Government Initiative, and have repeated our concerns during frequent conference calls with EPA’s Office of Public Affairs."
EPA has had a largely unwritten policy, under this and some previous administrations, that press officers must give permission for EPA scientists (and other staff) to speak to reporters — and that press officers must actually sit in on interviews. The draft Scientific Integrity Policy is the first time this policy has been reduced to writing as an agency-wide directive.
In its comments, SEJ urged EPA to abandon the requirement for interview permissions and "minders." Instead, SEJ recommended that EPA adopt portions of a model policy drafted by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Specifically, SEJ called on EPA to affirm that:
"1) scientists have the right to speak freely about any topic (including agency policy) if they clarify that they are speaking as private citizens, not as agency representatives, and
2) scientists have the right to review and correct any official document (such as a press release or report) that cites or references their scientific work, to ensure that accuracy has been maintained after the clearance and editing process."
"To those two principles" SEJ's comments stated, "SEJ would add a third: That members of the news media have a right to interact with EPA staff, including scientists, without having agency staff and/or political minders listening in or otherwise taking part."
"In particular," SEJ stated, "we advocate the following language: 'Final authority over the content of and parties to any particular media communication resides with the reporter and the scientist with whom he or she communicates.' SEJ advocates adding specific language that states that public affairs officers are NOT required to sit in on interviews and that agency staff are permitted to speak to the press without the permission of or the involvement of the press office."
SEJ's comments on the science policy only include part of its concerns with the way the EPA press office impedes the free flow of information. The comments stated: "SEJ continues to hear from its members, almost daily, about the difficulties they have in getting answers to important questions for their stories. Journalists in multiple news outlets report getting the runaround from EPA press officers when seeking their assistance. Typically, they end up with a short statement via e-mail that almost never answers their questions. Seldom are they able to interview the EPA person they would find most helpful."
"EPA’s final policy," the comments added, "needs to emphasize that, in dealing with the news media, timeliness is an issue. In an era when the news cycle is measured in hours, information delayed is information denied. Reporters working on daily stories who call the press office should have a call-back in 20 minutes and prompt access to interviews with scientists."