SEJ Urges EPA Press Office To Open up Agency Info to News Media

February 8, 2012

"Can we talk?" — The Society of Environmental Journalists has been trying to raise news media access issues with the Environmental Protection Agency for several years. But just getting a callback from EPA's press office, SEJ members complain, can be difficult.

Now SEJ President Carolyn Whetzel has asked EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to resume meetings to discuss how EPA deals with the news media. In a January 27, 2012, letter, Whetzel complained about EPA's unresponsiveness to "concerns our members have expressed about their ability to get the information they need to do their jobs."

Among SEJ members' biggest concerns have been the de facto policy requiring press office permission before a reporter can interview an agency scientist — and requiring a press office chaperone during the interview, either in person or on the phone. But it does not stop there. Complaints also include slow callbacks or none at all, a press office insistence on submittal of questions by email, and a growing effort to put agency officials remarks "on background."

SEJ leaders had been having ongoing phone meetings with EPA press office leaders over the past two years in hopes of resolving those issues, but those talks had broken down, Whetzel said in the letter. Whetzel recounted being unable to get EPA press spokespeople to return her calls in the weeks before a forum held October 3, 2011, in Washington, DC, on agency press policies.

Whetzel acknowledged that EPA had made some significant improvements in press access during the last several years — including timing press conferences to accommodate West Coast media, adding more phone lines for press teleconferences, and dramatic improvements in access to some data and documents.

But Whetzel added that the Obama administration's openness pledges — together with Jackson's own April 2009 "fishbowl memo" — had raised news media hopes to expect far more.

"We continue to hear on an almost daily basis from SEJ members in a variety of news outlets," Whetzel wrote, "that they get the run-around when trying to schedule interviews, gather basic information, or get answers to important questions for their stories. While it’s clear to us that members of the major, national media organizations have quality access to you and to top EPA insiders, our members who are working for small newspapers and radio stations or toiling away as freelancers are hit with repeated hurdles when they try to do their jobs."

"The standard response from EPA these days to a reporter’s request for information," the letter said, "is for EPA to ask 'what kind of story' the reporter is working on, then ask for all questions in writing, and then wait until just before deadline (or after) and send a couple of sentences in a state via e-mail that doesn’t answer the question. Seldom do most reporters get questions answered, and even more seldom are they able to interview the EPA person they would find most helpful."