SEJ Comments on How To Make EPA More Open

March 24, 2010

SEJ has urged the US Environmental Protection Agency to open up its press-relations procedures and abandon Bush-era restrictions as a way of furthering President Obama's declared open-government goals.

Under his "Open Government Initiative," President Obama ordered federal agencies to establish open-government web pages where agencies could solicit public input on how to improve openness. EPA solicits comments on its OpenGov page and OpenEPA/Share Your Ideas. SEJ, on behalf of its member environmental journalists, offered eight suggestions.

Top SEJ suggestions included an end to requiring Saddam-style "minders" and press-office permissions before reporters could talk to EPA scientists and staff. SEJ also urged prompter PIO callbacks and interviews, an end to automatic "background," and timelier dissemination of news. SEJ also urged better access to documents and data.

Several SEJ members offered additional suggestions to EPA on their own.

Members of the public can vote on the various ideas submitted on the Web site, and SEJ members who support SEJ's suggestions are encouraged to register on the site and vote for them.

Here is the full text of the comments SEJ submitted to EPA's OpenEPA site:

"Submitted on behalf of the Society of Environmental Journalists by Christy George, SEJ president (via Ken Ward Jr., SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force Chairman):

These suggestions are from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the organization that represents reporters, producers, editors, photographers, and others who cover environmental issues for news media. News media are still the principal channel through which most Americans get their information about the environment. Without transparency to the media, there can be no transparency to the public.

While the Obama/Jackson administration has taken steps to make government more open and transparent to the general public through social networking and the Internet, EPA has also continued some policies and practices of the Bush administration that make it harder for environmental journalists to get the information they need to do their jobs.

Specifically we urge EPA to:

1. End the practice that prevents EPA scientists or employees from talking to reporters without press office permission and a press officer present.

2a. Have informed press officers available during extended hours for real-time response to news media questions, including journalists’ complete working day on the West coast. Journalists have to do news 24/7, and we need fast access to authoritative EPA information, position statements, and reactions. EPA could start by simply returning all press calls promptly, within hours, not days. ["We don't know," "We're studying it," "We'll get back to you," and "We can't comment" are all better than "EPA did not return calls by press time."]

2b. In those cases where journalists are working on non-breaking stories, EPA should commit to set up interviews with relevant EPA experts on a given subject within a reasonable period of time -- within a week of the request, except in extremely unusual circumstances. We know of a few cases in which the agency appears to have simply refused to engage with journalists working on non-deadline stories.

3. Improved access to documents without a need to file FOIA requests. Faster response to media (and public) FOIA requests.

4. A presumption that press officers and other officials are talking on the record unless otherwise agreed to explicitly in advance by both sides. "Background" should be the rare exception, not the standard operating procedure.

5. Improve timing of EPA's dissemination of news/info to make sure it does not miss opportunities to be taken up promptly and fully into the news cycle. When news events or releases can be predicted or planned, this means release earlier in the day and earlier in the week (not late Friday pm). It also means giving advisories as far as possible (days) ahead-of-time to the largest feasible group. When a press officer promises to get back to a reporter with an answer or interview, it should come within hours, not weeks.

6. Open up the format of press conferences and conference calls -- to give more information and allow more questions and follow up. For example: more notice, more phone lines, broader criteria for "credentialing," more time for questions, and more quotable officials. After a major news conference, EPA may need to assign several people to telephone follow-up.

7. Improve press office inclusiveness to include routinely a broader spectrum of media types that make up today's changing news media landscape. While big national news organizations may get more attention, EPA also needs to communicate well with regional, state, and local media. Specialty press, trade press, online media, freelancers, minority press, small broadcast outlets, and a variety of others.

8. Improved access to raw data in electronic form by reducing technical, format, media-type, procedural, legalistic, and bureaucratic barriers."