EPA Drafts Science Policy Codifying Minders, PIO Permissions for Media Interviews

August 10, 2011

EPA scientists will need press office permission to be interviewed by journalists under a new draft policy seemingly dictated by the Obama White House. The draft policy, which is open for public comment until September 6, 2011, would also require Saddam-style "minders" from the EPA press office to sit in on all media interviews with scientists.

The Society of Environmental Journalists, working through its Freedom of Information Task Force, has opposed those restrictions in previous years and under previous administrations. SEJ is likely to submit formal comments on this draft policy as well. The draft "Scientific Integrity Policy" marks the first time that the EPA's previously unwritten minders-and-permissions policy for press interviews has been reduced to a publicly disclosed written policy applying to the entire agency.

Initial reaction to the draft policy from open-government groups was unfavorable. The whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) called it "pathetically weak." Both the Union of Concerned Scientists and OMB Watch expressed worry that EPA science could be trumped by politics once rulemaking decisions went from EPA to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

"We object to parts of the EPA draft policy that restrict news media access to EPA scientists," SEJ President Carolyn Whetzel said. "In some cases, the proposed policy is much more restrictive than the NASA or NOAA policies, or even the White House guidelines. For example, the policy calls for scientists to 'adhere to EPA’s…clearance procedures.' Scientists should not have to get permission from the press office to talk to a reporter who calls with a question."

"Nor should press office chaperones be required — their presence is seen by either the scientist or the reporter, or both, as a form of intimidation," Whetzel added. "Every EPA employee has a Constitutional right to talk to reporters and to express personal opinions about the policy implications of their work."

The draft EPA policy states some lofty openness goals, for example:

"When dealing with science, it is the responsibility of every EPA employee to conduct, utilize, and communicate science with the highest degree of honesty, integrity, and transparency, both within and outside the Agency."

Those words may have little meaning, however, in the absence of specific enforceable procedures for actually making openness happen.

Instead, the draft EPA policy leaves political appointees with dominant authority for message control. While line-level public information officers are usually civil service, press-office policy often restricts them to speaking only on background (a practice which SEJ has in many cases objected to). Press-office supervisors and higher-ranking spokespeople like the press secretary — who are more likely to agree to being quoted by name — are more often political appointees.

Under the draft policy, EPA scientists are expected to "Notify their supervisors of outreach activities and media interactions and adhere to EPA’s and their Program Office’s or Region’s clearance procedures associated with ensuring accuracy and disseminating scientific information and scientific assessments." In practice, that may mean scientists must get permission before talking to a reporter.

SEJ members and other reporters in the past have sometimes not been allowed to talk to the specific scientist they have asked to interview. The draft policy seems self-contradictory on whether reporters can interview specific scientists.

For example, the draft policy states: EPA scientists are expected to "Make themselves available to answer inquiries from the news media when there are media inquiries regarding their scientific work." But it then immediately states that scientists can refuse to talk to reporters if they choose.

The policy goes on: "EPA will offer articulate and knowledgeable spokespersons or Agency representatives who can best serve the needs of the media and the American public." That seems to encourage press office spokespeople or political appointees to routinely stand in for scientists. In many reporters' experience, political appointees and beat-level press officers are often handicapped by lack of knowledge about the scientific subjects reporters are asking about.

The draft policy also seems self-contradictory as to what scientists can speak to reporters about. Part of the policy suggests that scientists can speak to reporters only about the scientists' own narrowly defined "official EPA scientific studies and research." That might discourage them from talking about the work of other scientists in their field, or the policy implications of their work (subjects reporters are often very interested in).

The draft policy seems to discourage scientists from talking to reporters about policy with language like this: "Public and media questions about any policy implications raised by scientific studies should be addressed by designated Agency officials responsible for conveying information about EPA policy matters, such as program policy experts or designated spokespersons."

Having thrown that wet blanket on policy discussion by scientists, the draft then does give lip service to free speech by stating that scientists are expected to "Use the following disclaimer language when presenting written scientific information on matters that do not reflect their official Agency scientific activities and direct responsibilities or as may otherwise be required under EPA clearance procedures: The views expressed in this [article/chapter/paper/speech] are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

The policy is quite clear about requiring "minders" to sit in on journalists' interviews with scientists. In current practice, this is required for both phone interviews and face-to-face interviews. The draft states: "The public affairs staff from Regional, Program or HQ offices should attend interviews to ensure that the Agency is being fully responsive to media questions and to ensure responsiveness, consistency and accuracy with future inquiries that they themselves might receive about a scientific topic."

During the run-up to the second Iraq war, President Bush cited Saddam Hussein's insistence that "minders" sit in on UN inspector interviews with nuclear scientists as evidence that the dictator was hiding a nuclear weapons program. (Later evidence showed he had none.) Later, Bush executive agencies imposed their own stricter and more widespread requirements for minders in press interviews. Obama, despite promising a retreat from restrictive Bush information policies, seems to be continuing them.

The draft EPA policy came as several other science agencies covered by environmental reporters issued their own. Almost all federal agencies must do so under guidelines issued by the White House. A draft policy issued July 28, 2011, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  and another issued August 6 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) stood in contrast to EPA's draft.

For example, the NSF draft emphasizes free speech with the affirmative statement: "NSF-funded scientists and staff have the fundamental right to express their personal views, provided they specify that they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative of, the agency but rather in their private capacity. So long as this disclaimer is made, the employee is permitted to mention his or her institutional affiliation and position if this has helped inform his or her views on the matter."

The NOAA draft encourages media contact as well: "In support of a culture of openness, and consistent with DAO 219-1 (Public Communication) and their official duties, NOAA scientists may freely speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work, including scientific and technical ideas, approaches, findings, and conclusions based on their official work. …. NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints within their area of professional expertise that extend beyond science to incorporate personal opinion but must make clear they are presenting their individual opinions when doing so – not the views of the Department of Commerce or NOAA."