SEJ, SPJ Urge EPA, CDC to End Press Office Obstacles in Public Health Crises

January 22, 2014

Reporters scrambling to inform the citizens of Charleston, West Virginia, about why they could not drink their tap water, what health threats it presented, and who was responsible faced a stone wall from most of the responsible government agencies in the early days of the crisis.

As is often the case, agency officials who should be publicly accountable hid behind their press offices. It took the U.S. EPA, the main federal agency responsible for carrying out the Safe Drinking Water Act, a good week to make any public comment on Charleston's crisis, despite repeated requests from reporters. The Centers for Disease Control — which had hastily and unofficially come up with a guess about what level of MCHM in the water might be safe — avoided explaining the basis for its advice for three days.

If Charleston Gazette environmental reporter Ken Ward Jr. wins a Pulitzer for his work on the story (and many say he should, along with his colleagues), it will be partly because he had to overcome the many obstacles put up by agency press offices. After a week of asking and waiting, Ward finally did get an interview with an EPA official. Ward and his colleagues at the Gazette, along with reporters at other West Virginia and national news media, were working long hours and filing updates almost hourly as new developments broke. EPA hardly seemed to share this sense of urgency. That was the first statement of any kind from EPA on the crisis.

Ward's colleague at the Gazette, reporter David Gutman, tired of waiting days for someone from CDC to call back and explain the agency's apparent waffling about its health advice, finally tracked down CDC director Thomas Frieden's number and called him at home. [The WatchDog's first managing editor always encouraged him to call the mayor at home at 11 pm if deadline news required it.]

The public's need to know (for example, whether pregnant women would endanger their babies by drinking the water) was not urgent enough for Director Friedman. He refused to answer questions. He told Gutman: "I'll give you the number of the CDC press office. This is a private number .... If you'd like to reach the CDC, you need to go through the press office."

Even when Ward got an interview with EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin, the headline was that EPA really didn't know how bad the spill was. Ward said that he had some follow-up questions, and Garvin and Region 3 PIO Terri White promised to get back to him with answers. Ward emailed them the questions the same night (January 15). A week later, as this WatchDog went to press, Ward had still not heard back from EPA on any answers. Ward shared his unanswered questions with the WatchDog; they are available here.

In response to agency press office unresponsiveness, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter of complaint January 20, 2014, to top administrative and press officials at EPA and CDC.

The journalism groups asked the agencies for the following:

"– 24-hour access to public information officers, with prompt (less than 30 minute) callbacks.
– avoidance of rote, uninformative, general desk statements read or emailed to reporters.
– access to in-house experts who know the subject at hand.
– availability of responsible, informed officials for regular on-record briefings.
– availability of experts and officials for longer give-and-take on-the-record interviews, including on-camera Q&As.  One-way briefings, especially if done on “background,” fail miserably at clarifying complex issues and have little credibility with the public when no one is held accountable for the information provided.
– documentary evidence to support official statements, with the fewest possible restrictions."

"In crises like these," SEJ and SPJ wrote, "it’s imperative for government and those entrusted with the public’s welfare to inform people promptly and continually about what they know — and what they don’t. Too often, in the interest of preventing panic or confusion, government agencies clamp down on their communication with the news media and the public.  As happened in this case, a parsimonious public-affairs strategy all too often backfires, feeding people’s fear and distrust of government."

SEJ and its members have been complaining about press office unresponsiveness for years, without much result. The problem is getting worse, most SEJ members agree. The problem is hardly limited to EPA and CDC; they are merely the two agencies most relevant to the Charleston crisis.

The responsiveness of state agencies to press questions is also an issue. Not all agencies, state or federal, perform badly. Ward singles out the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as an example of an agency trying to do press relations right. "The DEP is the most open agency I cover," he says.