What "Highly Message-Controlled" Agencies Mean for Health Reporting

Reporters trying to get information from federal agencies find press offices stonewalling and running out the clock on their interview requests. "The public information model," one agency flak said, "is dead." The result: the public is uninformed, the government is unaccountable, and people's health is endangered.

"In May, The Oregonian published an alarming investigation detailing how, in the paper’s words, the US Department of Agriculture 'repeatedly blinked when facing salmonella outbreaks involving Foster Farms,' one of the nation’s largest poultry processors. Foster Farms had been linked to nearly 1,000 salmonella infections from 2004 through 2014. Hundreds of people got sick. Yet the USDA 'time after time…chose not to warn the public or ask Foster Farms for a recall,' wrote Oregonian health reporter Lynne Terry, and 'with no reason to worry, people kept eating contaminated chicken.'

The paper’s efforts to expose the government’s weak enforcement program and the public’s vulnerability involved a pitched battle with federal officials, which Terry’s editor Les Zaitz described to me as a 'long tour of duty in bureaucratic hell.' For several months, the USDA dodged questions, ignoring some queries and answering others that were not asked, going silent for long stretches, and professing a desire to help only to say repeatedly that’s not possible. Terry pushed for an interview with USDA officials. After resorting to written questions—submitting two different sets and getting back what Terry calls 'largely unusable,' vague answers—the paper was finally granted a 15-minute interview with USDA Deputy Under Secretary Al Almanza.

Eventually, The Oregonian opted to publish what it had. And although it turned out to be a strong story, the process was protracted and frustrating. Terry pressed the agency to disclose how many times the government had formally requested a recall in six salmonella outbreaks dating to 2007, but the USDA—which can request but not force a recall— 'declined to say,' Terry wrote. (A USDA spokesperson told me via email that the agency 'did disclose this information several times.' Terry stands by her account and notes that no corrections have been requested.) Zaitz compared the extended back-and-forth with the agency to 'shooting BBs against a battleship.' How eager will the paper—or any news outlet—be to re-load and take aim at the next battleship? What other stories get shelved or go untended during the struggle?"

Trudy Lieberman reports for Columbia Journalism Review November 10, 2015.

Source: Columbia Journalism Review, 11/13/2015