Press, Public Thirsty for Information, But Agencies Turning Off Spigot

April 15, 2014

SEJ President's Report

By DON HOPEY

People care about the information they get.

And, more than ever, they need accurate, factual news delivered as quickly as possible to best assess the risks and threats to their health and the environment.

But the public isn’t getting what it needs from federal and state agencies – especially the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – where, during crisis events and day-to-day operations, agencies work harder at controlling the information that reaches the public than they do at gathering and making it available.

A recent example of that, one of several, is the performance earlier this year of the EPA and the federal Centers for Disease Control following the chemical tank leak in Charleston, WV, which contaminated the Elk River and the drinking water supply for 300,000 people (see “Inside Story” on coverage of the leak).The EPA refused to speak about the contamination for nearly a week, and took several more days to supply information about water quality to local residents thirsty for news.

Tim Wheeler, chair of SEJ’s Freedom of Information Task Force, former SEJ president and long-time environment reporter at the Baltimore Sun, said the EPAand the CDC failed in their responsibility to inform the public.

“The EPA didn’t just keep a low profile; it refused to talk,” Wheeler said. “And the CDC, while it eventually did talk to (National Public Radio) and some national outlets, ignored the local audience most in need of the information and desperate for news about the contamination during that crisis situation.”

Of course, as many SEJ members know, problems prying information and interviews out of federal and state agencies aren’t limited to crisis situations. Although the EPA’s own website says part of its mission is to make sure the public has “access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks,” SEJ members’ interactions with the agency are more frequently than not marked by response delays and a lack of transparency.

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, government public information officers, or “PIOs” for short, lived up to that job title, serving a valuable function. Responding to media requests and questions, PIOs would set up interviews with scientists and administrators. Many PIOs at both federal and state levels were knowledgeable about issues and could respond to questions immediately or in a timely manner, providing factual information that was responsive to questions.

That still happens. But only occasionally. For the most part today, PIOs are not living up to their job title. Not any part of it. More and more they seem almost afraid to speak, and when they do are often loathe to give out information about research, investigations and ongoing crisis management. Often as not we must deal with PIOs who know little about the subject at hand, or have no authorization or expertise to speak of it. What reporters now are most apt to receive are the unresponsive statements contained in written releases they’re happy to email to you, as soon as they get clearance. Which could take days.

In short, while there remain a few good ones sprinkled through the agencies – and even those have their hands tied – the PIO job today is much more public relations than public information. As Ken Ward Jr., the Charleston Gazette environment reporter and longtime former SEJ FOI Task Force chair, observed, there are fewer and fewer PIOs who are career public servants, and more on the federal and state levels who hail from political campaigns.

“The people handling the PIO jobs were campaign flacks, but we don’t need political operatives in those positions,” Ward said during a phone conversation in February. “We need and want someone who believes in the public’s right to know.”

But don’t get the idea this information-flow problem related only to the EPA or the CDC or other federal or state environment or health agencies. Corporations regularly respond to questions by issuing self-serving statements that don’t answer the questions asked, and other government agencies also frequently show their disrespect for the media, and by extension, the public. One example is a February story by The Associated Press that reported the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command ordered photographs of Osama bin Laden’s corpse destroyed or turned over to the CIA (where they could avoid FOIAdisclosure) even though the AP had filed a FOIA request for the photos 10 days earlier.

Such actions, which have accelerated in recent years, show a distinct lack of respect for the role of a free press.

So how do we fix this problem? Well, SEJ’s Freedom of Information Task Force has penned a letter of protest to the CDC – getting an admission that it could have performed better in Charleston – and the EPA. It’s invited administrators from both to discuss the problem, and plans to continue to aggressively press the EPA and other agencies for more transparency, more openness, more timely and responsive communications with government PIOs, and better, more timely access to scientists and experts and information.

SEJ conference also to address info access

And SEJ’s annual conference, earlier than usual this year on Sept. 3-7 in New Orleans, will also target the issue of information availability, kicking off with a day-long workshop, “Disasters and Extreme Weather: Gathering the News and Keeping Safe,” organized by Nancy Gaarder of the Omaha World-Herald. Sessions will cover industrial infrastructure, sourcing, protecting our own psyche, the common classes of contaminants, and also how to navigate information sources often as chaotic as the unfolding crisis.

“A key part is teaching reporters where to find stuff when the people who are supposed to tell you stuff, aren’t,” said Mark Schleifstein, chair of this year’s conference and environment reporter at NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune.

A strong conference lineup of nine tours on Thursday, Sept. 4, will also call attention to the ebbs and flows of information. Among the tours are trips exploring the aftermath of the BP oil well spill in the Gulf, wetland and barrier shoreline restoration, impact of Louisiana’s industrial “chemical corridor,” impacts of increased hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in oil and gas exploration, storm surge risks and rebuilding after disasters.

And EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who has said EPA’s goal is to be as transparent as possible, has been invited to be a keynote or plenary speaker. If she accepts, we can be sure that topic will come up.

Although the conference sessions lineup hasn’t been finalized as I write this, Jay Letto, SEJ’s conference director, said there would be at least one session devoted to how to file FOIA requests, which should be helpful to younger and new members.

It’s an educational opportunity that is much needed because all of us need to do a better job letting the public know we are asking the hard and important questions. We can’t control what the agencies are doing. We can only change our own behavior. So in addition to printing the non-responsive releases we are handed, journalists need to also tell readers the questions we’ve asked that aren’t getting answered and why they’re important.

“It’s not ‘inside baseball.’ People care about our ability to get answers especially in situations where there are public health questions and risks,” said Ward. “The people need the information.That’s what it comes down to.”

Don Hopey covers environment at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pitt Honors College Yellowstone Field Course.

 


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.